Normally a film featuring a character called “The Therapist,” especially when played by Ted Danson, should set off alarms. It warns of yet another vapid rom-com-dram, probably about a spoiled 30-something couple who wonder where the magic went. The last time a film featuring a therapist played by a television personality exceeded expectations was Philip Kaufman’s 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in which Leonard Nimoy is a self-help guru who abets the title pod people in their attempted takeover. As it turns out, first-time director Charlie McDowell’s cheeky head-scratcher “The One I Love” has more in common with Kaufman’s movie than just a similarity in casting.
But first, the discontented thirty-somethings must make their case. Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss, who maintains a sardonic and sweet rapport with Duplass) have been married long enough to know that the fire is going out and having an affair (Ethan’s indiscretion) or a child (oddly the subject never comes up) is not going to rekindle it. So they drag themselves to do couple’s therapy with Danson’s supercilious counselor and tell him that nowadays happiness is something they have to recreate from memories of happy moments in the past. They no longer find it in the present. The Therapist agrees and hands them a pamphlet for a luxurious couples retreat and tells them to check the place out. Many of his clients have done so, he says, and “they all come back renewed.”
Is that necessarily a good thing? But Ethan and Sophie look online at the endorsements of satisfied customers and see pictures of beaming couples with comments like “Back in love!” and “He proposed!” A bit generic, perhaps, but at the compound they are won over by the pool, the mountain view, and the hip, plush comfort. Before you know it they are sampling fine wine and popping grapes into each other’s mouths while listening to an old recording of George “Little Hat” Jones singing “Bye Bye Baby Blues.” They share a joint, hop into bed, and let the new experiences roll.
Certain details, though, are problematic. Like the colors — it all looks too bright and shiny and bland. The two additional units in the compound, labeled “Guests” and “Coop” — were they mentioned in the brochure? And then there’s the creepy percussion music on the soundtrack and all the Matryoshka dolls and Buddhas in the décor. The mysteries mount, and phrases like “I don’t believe it!” are repeated. Their therapeutic retreat, as Ethan puts it, has entered “other dimensions in some weird version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’”
Time for them to leave, you would think, and they almost succeed in doing so. But something draws them back. Ethan wants to return in order to find out what’s going on. Sophie simply finds the place “magical.” But whether the magic can survive the explanation is a problem not only for Ethan and Sophie, but for McDowell and his screenwriter Justin Lader.
Nonetheless, an unsatisfying denouement aside, their film says more about intimacy and individuality than any romantic comedy or romantic tragedy in years. Like other offbeat and original efforts such as Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” and Richard Ayaode’s dour “The Double,” it juggles genres, reverses expectations, and resorts to fantasy in order to explore the enigmas of gender, identity, and love.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.