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Review: 'The One I Love' has a top secret premise it doesn't fully exploit

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play a frayed couple who happen on something mysterious in "The One I Love," which we can't spoil.

Something secretive happens to Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in "The One I Love." Credit: RADiUS-TWC Something secretive happens to Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in "The One I Love."
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

‘The One I Love’
Director: Charlie McDowell
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

In “The One I Love,” a couple — Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) — take the advice of their marriage counselor (Ted Danson) and head up to a remote, isolated retreat to heal their wounds. Once they get there, though, something…of some nature…happens…which we’re not allowed to reveal, even though it happens in the first 15 minutes.

We get and respect withholding twists, and won’t even make the argument that if a film or a TV show or a book doesn’t work after they’ve been spoiled, then they don’t work at all. And we even somewhat get keeping mum on the big one here, which is genuinely walloping if you haven’t read it revealed elsewhere, even if the sensation quickly passes.

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On the other hand, if your twist happens in the first 15 minutes, it’s not a twist, it’s the premise. And the decision to keep the one here under lock and key doesn't just mean reviewers have little to discuss. It means potential viewers have very little to go on — just a vague and not terribly enticing premise (couples therapy!) and two very good actors, who are, it can be spoiled, very good here.

Moss and Duplass are the biggest reasons to see “The One I Love,” as well as the set-up, whatever that may be. So pardon us if we sound evasive when we say that the premise, whose nature we can’t reveal, is a strong, meaty one, but whose potential is only marginally exploited. Worse, the third act — which we would never dream of spoiling — goes in a disastrous, misjudged direction. But what else can we say? For a review that actually discusses the particulars, scroll down past this picture, for an all- (or at least some-)spoiler review.

Elisabeth Moss wanders through a scenic getaway spot in "The One I Love." Credit: The Weinstein Company Elisabeth Moss wanders through a scenic getaway spot in "The One I Love."
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

OK, you’re here and you don’t mind having the event that happens in the first 15 minutes of “The One I Love” revealed. Soon after arriving at their destination, Sophie and Ethan appear to revert to the good old days, getting along as swimmingly as it’s assumed they once did. But something’s amiss, and they quickly realize they’ve each been conversing with a doppelganger version of the other. What’s more, they’re the best versions of themselves, in a way. Sophie talks to an Ethan who’s looser, less uptight and who likes to mess up his hair and take off his glasses. Ethan, meanwhile, finds a Sophie who always compliments him, who’s perky and not neurotic, and who doesn’t passionately hate bacon.

Though freaked at first, Sophie and Ethan decide to keep up appearances, ostensibly as a trust exercise. In truth, they both love being with idealized versions of each other, ones that haven’t yet curdled into endless nit-picking over the other’s manifest flaws. That they prefer this is their biggest flaw, of course: They each, to steal a line from Moss’ show “Mad Men,” only like the beginnings of things — or at least the beginnings of each other. They don’t like the grunt work of marriage, or simply refuse to acknowledge that — after the cool versions of themselves they presented to each other during courtship has eroded, leaving copious flaws — they may not be right together after all.

Either way it’s a dark, almost comically honest look at relationships, even ones that generally work. And it does do a lot with its mysterious yet hooky premise. At first they enact a no-romance rule that is quickly broken. Then one gets less into it while the other gets really into it. It doesn’t rest on its laurels, but keeps building and escalating.

And then it goes the wrong way. This is a “Twilight Zone”-y premise, but the key to “Twilight Zone”’s success is that the episodes don’t waste time finding rational explanations for the cosmic thing that’s happening. This one does, and not only does it distract from the real matter at hand, the explanation is hopelessly tangled and inelegant. It’s such a misjudged third act switch — which we won’t spoil — that it almost distracts from some of its other problems, like how the alternate Sophie is a tired cliche of a low-maintenance housewife. The individual scenes were largely improvised, and both actors are terrific (especially Duplass' uptight real Ethan). But it would have been smarter to spend at least some of that energy on finding a better way to wrap this up.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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