'The One I Love' is magic in the moonlight

Matt Pais movie review: 'The One I Love'

'The One I Love'

'The One I Love' (August 18, 2014)

***1/2 (out of four)

Like a more intimate companion to 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “The One I Love” likewise stars Mark Duplass and is a metaphysical romantic drama with an offbeat sense of humor. It’s insightful, strange and engrossing even when it’s silly. It’s the first movie in a while I didn’t want to stop thinking about, and couldn’t if I tried.

Ethan (Duplass, “The League”) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men”) used to be happily married. They’re still married, but the trust is gone. He cheated on her. She’ll decide when she can move on, and that time isn't now. Their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests they try a retreat in California, where the couple finds a guesthouse with a book featuring smiling couples and comments like, “Back in love.” This is where things get odd, and it’s better if you don’t know why.

Here’s what I will say: The couple tries to perceive their situation as a trust exercise, not a “Twilight Zone” episode. They attempt to compartmentalize their troubles, but that’s easier said than done. It’s refreshing for a movie to actually recognize the challenge of moving past a big roadblock in a relationship (most stories add up to “Just let it go”). Writer Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell have tough things to say about monogamy and coping with mistakes: You can move forward, but there might not be anything waiting ahead. You aren’t the same, and neither is the other person.

Do we prefer a perfect imitation or flawed reality? The clever, creative “The One I Love” explores this concept in a way superior to the overrated “Certified Copy” and “American Hustle.” Though a certain inevitability to the storytelling makes you wonder how frequently this complicated scenario—which isn’t fully explained and shouldn’t be—unfolds the way it does here.

Yet it’s a real talker, at times feeling like Charlie Kaufman adapting “The Game.” Playing difficult roles, Duplass is very good and Moss is even better. Where “I Origins” used an animal-based metaphor to say something twinkly about belief, “The One I Love” turns it into a challenge. Can we embrace the unexplainable, especially if it’s an opportunity for happiness? The movie turns a deceptively skeptical eye, as if no matter how devoted people are to one other, selfishness and a desire for ease linger just below the surface. Discuss.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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