Being John Malkovich, Best of 2014, black comedies, cinema, couples' therapy, dopplegangers, doubles, Elisabeth Moss, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, ideal self, independent films, indie films, infidelity, marital issues, Mark Duplass, marriage, Movies, romances, small cast, surreal, Ted Danson, The One I Love, troubled marriages
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A husband and wife go see a marriage counselor after repeated attempts to put the spark back into their rocky relationship fail miserably. The therapist invites the couple to spend the weekend, on their own, at his isolated estate: away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, he theorizes that the pair will be able to reconnect and rediscover what first drew them to each other. Once there, however, the husband and wife continue to bicker and pick at each other, right up until the point where they discover their doppelgängers living in the guest-house: their doubles appear to exemplify each person’s “better” qualities but also seem unable to leave the guest-house. As the wife begins to fall in love with her husband’s “double,” her real husband must do everything he can to try to woo her back from “himself.” As the rules of space and time appear to be collapsing on themselves, the couple must make one last, desperate stand to preserve their marriage and, by extension, themselves: failure to do so may very well change the world…forever. Same old, same old, right?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Every once in a while, a film comes along that is so genuinely “out there,” so free of ties to conventional thought that it can’t help but stick out from the pack. Spike Jonze’s oddball Being John Malkovich (1999) is one such film, Jason Banker’s Toad Road (2012) is another. We could easily add Ben Wheatley’s amazing head-scratcher A Field in England (2013) to the list, saving a spot near the top for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Whatever you do, however, don’t forget to set a place at the table for Charlie McDowell’s feature-debut, The One I Love (2014), a genius film that manages to take the romantic-comedy, turn it inside out, spray-paint the carcass metallic gold, attach some rockets and send the whole damn thing straight into apace. It’s an incredibly simple film, utilizing only three actors and two locations, yet feels a million times more complex, stuffed to bursting with the kind of casual metaphysical nonsense that would be persona non grata in anything more “mainstream.” It is, without a doubt, one of my very favorite films of the year and, as far as I’m concerned, a cult classic in the making.
It’s hard to explain why the film works so well but I’ll give it the old college try. For one thing, you have an absolutely unbeatable cast: indie-film darling Mark Duplass has always been a lot of fun to watch (cold-start any given episode of The League for proof) but he’s never been better than he is here, effectively playing two very different characters, often at the exact same time. It’s a great performance because of how subtle it is: it’s not quite as simple as “alternative” Ethan being laid-back while “real” Ethan is uptight: Duplass works with his body language, facial expressions, posture and everything else at his disposal to really set these up as different individuals. There’s none of that hoary-old “which witch is which?” shit because both Marks are distinctly different individuals, even they seem to be opposite sides of the same coin.
Fans of Moss’ performances in Mad Men and Top of the Lake will already know what a gifted actor she is, able to easily portray the sad lot of the outsider without ever coming across as pitiable or in need of “saving.” Her performance here, like Duplass’, is a masterpiece of modulation: the differences between the two Sophies are even more subtle than between the Ethans, yet Moss still manages to make them distinctly different characters. Indeed, it’s Moss complete mastery of her characters that allows the final image to pack such a wallop. If it wasn’t completely obvious before, let’s go ahead and get it out-of-the-way right now: Elisabeth Moss is a force to be reckoned with and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if The One I Love was the beginning of her ascent into the stardom that she so richly deserves. It would be a career-making performance if Moss wasn’t already doing just fine: it’s just more proof that we need much, much more of her onscreen.
As a filmmaker, McDowell is an absolutely formidable presence. While the script (the feature-length debut for short writer Justin Lader) is rock-solid and pokes some suitably large holes in moldy rom-com clichés, it’s the director’s subtle touches that really make the film stand out. For one thing, I love how the ominous, foreboding score was almost always at odds with the action on-screen: from the get-go, the film makes us feel uneasy and edgy, which sits at decided odds with the Portlandia-esque opening banter between Duplass and Moss. We never have any idea which direction the film is going to take which ends up paying massive dividends in the second half when things really get hairy. It’s a smart, economical way to build mood and managed to put a big, dumb smile on my face from the jump.
I’m also rather enamored with the way McDowell (and Lader) combine so many disparate genres/themes/ideas into one big stew, tossing in elements of romantic comedies, troubled marriage dramas, intelligent sci-fi and double/doppelgänger films. It’s even possible to read the film as a horror movie, albeit an extremely tricky one: we never do get the full story of what’s going on but the bits and pieces we’re fed seem to point to some pretty sinister, mysterious things happening just off in the film’s margins. Ted Danson’s therapist is a fantastically shadowy character: the bit where he uses a piano to measure how “in tune” Ethan and Sophie are is nicely realized. If I have one real complaint with the film, it’s that Danson’s performance amounts to a glorified cameo: he deserved more screen time, plain and simple.
A lot of films get called “thought-provoking,” but The One I Love is one of the very few that earns the designation. The film not only makes some incredibly astute observations about marriage (there’s a painfully honest scene where Sophie discusses “real” Ethan’s infidelity with “fake” Ethan that’s almost too real to watch) but also manages to make the sci-fi/doppelgänger angle completely organic. The film makes absolutely no attempt to explain anything but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of its prime strengths: the remarkable amount of audience hand-holding. The One I Love is a film that doesn’t pander, relying on the antiquated idea that the audience won’t be too stupid to follow along. Suffice to say that I felt thoroughly satisfied with the resolution, even if nothing was wrapped up with a shiny bow.
If it hasn’t been made plainly clear before, I absolutely adored The One I Love. As a post-modern take on the romantic-comedy, it’s pretty much in a class all its own: there’s just enough ties to the old-school to make it recognizable, yet so much ferocious innovation as to let it easily stand out. The acting was impeccable (if anything, I wanted more of everyone, not less) and looked like a million bucks. I had more fun watching this film than I have in quite a while. The One I Love is Charlie McDowell’s debut feature and, if you’re smart, you’ll keep an eye on him: I have a feeling he’s got a long, amazing career ahead of him.