I said it before, and I’m saying it again. I may even say it again a time or two before the end of the year, if the trend continues. Two significant films this year dealt with misanthropic men encountering suaver, smoother versions of themselves in trippy, dreamlike realities. I’m speaking, of course, about Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and The Double, featuring Jesse Eisenberg, both of which stand a good chance of making my Top Ten at the end of the year. There’s also the low-budget sci-fi treat Coherence, which takes that basic premise to another level with doubles, triples, quadruples, and multiple characters getting in on the doppelganger action.
And now there’s The One I Love, in which a married couple portrayed by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss head out on a relationship-repairing weekend in a picturesque location in California and find that not only is the scenery idyllic, but so, all of a sudden, is their partner. This is because their spouse is not their spouse, exactly, but rather, some sort of robot or clone or entity from a parallel dimension posing as their spouse. (Maybe.)
What’s the deal, 2014? Why are we suddenly so preoccupied with doubles? There are so many of these movies with identical plots, it’s almost like they’re replicating themselves…
Like The Double, The One I Love mines humor from the unlikely situation it puts before us. A therapist (Ted Danson) sends Ethan and Sophie on a nice little retreat to a secluded home with a guest house, and soon Ethan and Sophie are smoking pot, having sex, and otherwise having a grand time with each other. But not together — since it turns out both Ethan and Sophie are having a different experience with their better halves — better halves who turn out to be even better versions of their better halves. A little investigation reveals that both Sophie and Ethan have a double living in the guest house, a doppelganger who appears only when they venture inside alone. Ethan’s instinct is to high-tail it the hell out of there, but Sophie is intrigued enough to want to go back, paving the way for plenty of conflict when Ethan begins suspecting that Sophie might prefer the sweeter, fitter, more genial version of her husband than the actual man she’s been married to all these years. (And we can see why she might.) Ethan, on the other hand, seems more put off by the Stepford-esque Sophie, whose primary virtue is that she allows and even encourages him to eat bacon. (Sophie is a vegetarian.)
There are many directions a story like this could go — one which includes over-explaining everything to a degree where it’s no longer fun anymore, and another which explains almost nothing and lets the metaphor stand for itself. (This latter approach is how 2014’s other doppelganger movies presented their stories.) The One I Love splits the difference, offering up about half of an explanation for what’s happening — one that really just raises more questions. While there’s something eerie and unnerving about the too-perfect Ethan and Sophie, the script by Justin Lader mostly plays the scenario for laughs without allowing things to get too serious until the final act. There’s a past infidelity still haunting Ethan and Sophie, which is part of the reason they’re in marriage counseling in the first place, and though some intriguing issues crop up early on, the film seems too distinctly made from a male point-of-view, spending a lot of time on Ethan’s paranoia that Sophie is “cheating” on him with Better Ethan. This, in a way, puts Ethan in the moral high ground rather than submerging both characters in some complex murk. The One I Love, directed by first-time filmmaker Charlie McDowell, doesn’t totally fulfill all the thematic promise of a killer premise, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable ride along the way.The One I Love is, of course, a bit of a punny title, given that there is not just one that either Sophie or Ethan might end up loving. Love Is Strange might have been an equally apt title, but that title has been snatched up by an indie dramedy in which love is actually much less strange in comparison. Co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, it concerns George and Ben (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow), a couple who has spent nearly forty years together but was only recently granted permission to tie the knot officially and legally. That they do, but news of their union causes the Catholic school where he works as a music teacher to unceremoniously oust him, which puts George and Ben in a precarious financial position.
Kind of. George and Ben live privileged lives in New York City, and even with the loss of George’s job, they’re not exactly penniless. They have to give up the cushy condo they currently reside in, which is unfortunate at their age, but they still have at least a tiny nest egg left over from the sale, and multiple friends and family members are willing to house them temporarily. Love Is Strange is Woody Allen-esque in a number of ways, not the least of which is its cluelessness about what actual financial hardship might be like. George and Ben are living in the most expensive city in America, after all, without considering much whether moving somewhere cheaper might be a good solution. I’m not sure I, or anybody else, would wish to watch a film in which this gay couple ends up on the streets, digging into dumpsters to procure their next meal. However, the script fails to make their situation truly dire, or anywhere close to dire. The stakes of this movie are never raised above mild inconvenience.Love Is Strange has Ben and George separated physically — Ben goes to stay with his nephew and his family, while George takes up residence on the couch in an apartment owned by two younger gay cop buddies (Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson) that we never get to know as well as we might like. What ensues are two mostly separate dramas, as Ben gets embroiled in the petty upper-middle-class problems facing his family members and George must contend with rambunctious Dungeons & Dragons games, Latin dance parties, and Game Of Thrones marathons — apparently, the sort of things youngish gay cops engage in every night of the week. It’s somewhat curious that George and Ben both choose to stay in Manhattan apart rather than go elsewhere together — Ben’s niece offers them shelter upstate. We’ve heard, many times, that New York city is a character in movies, but in this one, she’s the mistress.
Ben’s story seems to take up considerably more screen time, as his niece by marriage Kate (Marisa Tomei) grows increasingly frustrated by his benign imposition. Like a Woody Allen movie, this is the sort of story in which most major characters are artists. George is a music teacher, Kate is a novelist, her husband Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) seems to be a filmmaker, and Ben is a painter. (Whether or not he was ever gainfully employed is not explored.) Kate gets irritated that Ben talks too much when she’s trying to write her novel; a later family blow-out involves Kate’s son Joey (Charlie Tahan) and his buddy Vlad (Eric Tabach) possibly stealing library books. Yes, this is the sort of movie where the biggest argument revolves around a teenager’s illicit activities involving French literature.
Love Is Strange is a genial, likeable little film, and it seems unkind to poke at it too much for not providing much in the way of actual, tangible drama. Many subplots are introduced and mostly forgotten, including a number of supporting characters, and the resolution of Ben and George’s housing crisis is an absolutely maddening deus ex machina that will leave anyone who has ever lived in New York City tearing their hair out in exasperation. The epilogue is a curiously sad denoument that feels tacked on and focuses on one of the least interesting supporting characters in the film, and also steals some thunder away from the injustice that the movie started off (and should have been) about.
But Molina and Lithgow are wonderful apart and together, much better than most recent roles have allowed them to be. The film only truly comes alive when they’re together on screen, which unfortunately is a small percentage of this movie. Ira Sachs previously directed the gay romance Keep The Lights On, which similarly introduced a lot of subplots that never quite added up to a full movie. Unlike that film, however, this one concerns a relationship that actually does work, one that is easy to invest in. George and Ben pull us through even when this screenplays lets us down.
I liked Love Is Strange just fine, but left the theater with too many loose ends and magical solutions to complain about. Love isn’t particularly strange in Love Is Strange, but it’s fucking wacky in The One I Love, so you can probably guess which of these little love stories I ended up loving more.