It might just be because of the scenes in the pool, but John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” was never far removed from my viewing of The One I Love. The obsession with suburban America that Cheever shared with the likes of John Updike also seems applicable here, but it’s probably more the hazy blur of realism and surrealism that brings the late writer’s most famous story to mind throughout the film. Granted The One I Love is more lighthearted than anything Cheever ever wrote, but there’s still a sustained feeling of dread and discomfort here. That’s coincidentally what sets the movie apart from most others, pulling it safely out of rom-com zaniness territory while managing to maintain a humorous mood.
Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are Ethan and Sophie, troubled young couple who find their marriage in jeopardy. Their counselor (who, for some reason, is played by Ted Danson) suggests a getaway at a picturesque hillside home designed specifically, it seems, for troubled young couples. They go. They have a great first night. After that, though, things go a little haywire. There’s something off about the little guest house in back. What was all the confusion about that first night? Could this be a dangerous place? Should they leave? Stay? Was this Ted Danson’s intention?
Without giving away the first “twist” (which does come fairly early in the film), suffice it to say that The One I Love does get weird. It kind of signals this beforehand through the sheer awkwardness of the leads, through the quirkiness and clipped pacing of the entire first act. It’s fairly evident that the film will not follow any sort of traditional couple-goes-away-and-fight-but-soon-reconcile sequence, and maybe it’s because of this foreshadowing that The One I Love never truly reaches the strange heights it initially promises. It’s weird, sure, but it could have been weirder, and if it had still found a way to maintain the balance between humor and dread then weirder would have been better.
Perhaps preserving the reveal of the first twist a little longer would have stretched that gleeful abstruseness of the first act – that’s really where most of the power of The One I Love resides. The last movies in the world we should compare the tiny One I Love to are the overbloated Hobbit films, but it’s the only comparison I can think of right now: the best part about An Unexpected Journey was that we didn’t see the great dragon Smaug. We saw his tail and his shadow and saw the destruction he left in his wake, we saw his eye open at the very end, but we never saw him in his entirety. The One I Love teases the dragon in the same way, but then it shows us the full thing by the 30-minute mark. There are other dragons, other twists from there onward, but the initial treading-on-shifting-ground uncertainty can never really be regained. Okay, it’s still a weak comparison. But any chance I have to say that Peter “T-Rex in King Kong” Jackson shows more restraint in any particular arena is a chance I’m going to take.
That said, it’s tough to dislike The One I Love. Duplass and Moss provide nearly all of the heart needed to make up for the weaknesses in the script, and the appeals to the heart are largely successful even when the twisty surrealist appeals to the brain fall flat. Again, the first act crackles because of these two. Duplass is especially on-point, if only because he’s the bigger surprise out of the two, and he just seems more at home here than Moss does. The way he declines a morning mimosa is fantastic. And the aforementioned scenes of dread are largely carried by Duplass, and he gets the weight of it all across beautifully just by leaning on a window or removing his glasses. The One I Love is far from perfect, but it’s worth a watch for the hit-the-ground-running opening act and the two strong lead performances.