The One I Love' is 'Strange'

Thoughtful indie films put relationships to the test

Thursday September 11, 2014 04:00 am EDT

For something that supposedly conquers all, love can prove fragile over time. In two new indie movies, married couples face threats to their relationships, one from within, the other, from without.

The One I Love explores what happens when a loving couple come inexplicably face to face with their internal issues. Love is Strange depicts a blissful pair who struggle against the external forces that drive them apart.

In early scenes from The One I Love, Sophie and Ethan (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) air their grievances with their therapist (Ted Danson). The pair's foundation of love seems undermined by long-term marital irritations and hints of past misdeeds, until the counselor suggests they visit an idyllic retreat for its therapeutic effects. Visiting the getaway home, they discover a guesthouse on the property, and then ...

Well, I won't spoil what happens next, as The One I Love's mysteries provide much of its strengths. Let's just say that Ethan and Sophie experience a phenomenon that allows each of them to reconnect with the other's most loving aspects, and Moss and Duplass get to play multiple facets of their characters' personalities. Both give subtly impressive performances that get under Ethan and Sophie's skin.

Screenwriter Justin Lader crafts a perplexing but ingenious premise, and while Ethan can't resist trying to unlock the mystery, Sophie urges that they just go with it. Of the spouses, Ethan's the more "difficult" one, a stick-in-the-mud with whom Sophie is losing patience. While first-time feature director Charlie McDowell effectively captures the couple's shifting dynamics, the visual repetitiousness of the film works against them.

Though Ethan needs to cultivate more emotional maturity, the story proves to be more on his side than Sophie's, becoming increasingly eerie and suspenseful as it goes along. In a way, it feels like The One I Love takes the easy route, exploring the "Twilight Zone" implications of the plot rather than using them to peel back the layers of the characters. Nevertheless, the film gives audiences plenty to talk about afterward on date night.

In the bittersweet Love is Strange, Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) seem to have no problems whatsoever. They've been together for 39 years and are delighted to get legally married in New York. Unfortunately, the ceremony causes George to lose his job as music director of a Catholic prep school, revealing the financial precariousness of their comfy bohemian lifestyle.

As George searches for a new job and the pair seeks an affordable apartment in the Kafkaesque realm of New York real estate, they find themselves forced to stay — separately — with friends. George crashes on the couch of a pair of hard-partying gay cops, while Ben moves in with his nephew's family, sharing a bunk bed with an increasingly resentful teenager. Non-Manhattanites might not be sympathetic to Ben and George's horror at the idea of moving in with a relative who lives in Poughkeepsie.

Love is Strange finds low-key humor in the houseguest situations: Marisa Tomei's self-absorbed author tries to disguise her annoyance with Ben's incessant chatter and whistling teakettle. Director/co-writer Ira Sachs keeps shifting the focus from the couple to Ben's angsty grandnephew Joey (Charlie Tahan), but the subplot never justifies the attention. Sachs also showcases lots of Chopin compositions and painterly New York street scenes, as if hoping the pretty images and classical music will do the heavy lifting of an underwritten script.

Sachs seems to be meditating on some abstract, vaguely defined idea of love, but the film's strongest scenes, not surprisingly, are the ones that allow veteran actors Lithgow and Molina to play off each other. When they sing an affectionate duet or reminisce at a landmark gay bar, we get a sense of their indulgent affection for each other, no matter how difficult their situations become. Like The One I Love, Love is Strange suggests that people and their circumstances never stay exactly the same, thus suggesting that to be successful, love is change.

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