The diversity of programming at the recently concluded Tribeca Film Festival, including about-to-release alt-summer programming, undistributed indies, and Sundance highlights, has a way of erasing expectations, if only by default. I had forgotten, sitting down to watch The One I Love, that it got good notices at Sundance earlier this year, and settled in for a domestic dramedy about a failing marriage. It is that, sort of—Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play the couple; Ted Danson plays their therapist; no one else really appears on screen—but after a quiet, downbeat setup (Moss and Duplass aren’t connecting but agree to attend a weekend retreat in an isolated getaway with an extra guest house) it goes in stranger and potentially more interesting directions.
I’m issuing a spoiler warning, but heed a separate warning on top of that one: you may well figure out the twists of The One I Love before you’re supposed to, or at least well before the characters do. When Moss or Duplass enter the guest house alone, they see a different version of their partner that has been idealized by about 15 or 20 percent. Moss sees a slightly sweeter, self-improving version of Duplass; Duplass sees a more accommodating, sunnier version of Moss. Complications ensue, slowly; director Charlie McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader offer a more workmanlike version of a Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze/Michel Gondry type of premise, struggling with the level of acceptance the characters should show before moving the story along. The good news: neither of them affects a cutesy deadpan reaction that no human would manage in real life. The bad news: they spend a lot of time talking about how weird it all is.
Which is probably what would happen in real life, but strands the deeply likable and empathetic Duplass and Moss in a series of holding patterns. The core of the movie is about the effort to re-create the magic of a relationship’s early days, when the other person seems refreshing and brand-new. But that’s barely subtext, because Moss and Duplass talk about it almost from the first scene, stepping on their own theme. Cut out all or most of that unproductive dialogue, and The One I Love might make a clever short film (or short story, for that matter). As it is, its cleverness, though present, is weirdly predictable.
Third Person, the new Paul Haggis picture, is not so predictable, at least if you avoid the trailer. (I saw it after watching the movie this weekend, and it’s surprisingly upfront in hinting at the movie’s central gimmick.) In fact, I watched large chunks of the movie baffled by how it would tie together its three major narratives, as is Haggis’s custom. Having apparently abandoned his quest to tackle big issues in America, the writer-director of Crash and In the Valley of Elah sticks to white folks this time, and if that’s kind of a bummer from a diversity perspective, at least Third Person seems more willing to admit that it’s a silly melodrama.
The stories are divided into three major (non-Los Angeles) cities. Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde play prickly writers in Paris; a foreigner-loathing Adrien Brody tries to help a desperate woman in Rome; and Mila Kunis fights for custody of her young son with wealthy artist James Franco. Neeson and Wilde probably fare the best, even if the movie’s discussions of writing and publishing are typically tin-eared. Brody’s story is the worst by far; I could’ve sworn his section took up more than its fair one-third of the overlong 140-minute running time, but maybe Brody’s Ugly American routine only feels more tedious. (Haggis practically has him announce his broad distaste for Rome, which has no bearing on the story beyond making the character look stupid.)
Third Person does contrive a built-in excuse for its multitude of awkward approximations of real life, which I won’t reveal here. Suffice it to say that Haggis is after something more complex and elusive than the relationship schematic of The One I Love. But sometimes bad writing is just bad writing.