One True Loves Can’t Quite Commit

Photo courtesy of The Avenue

One True Loves has one of those paperback-novel premises that can only seem to work as a screwball farce or a serious melodrama when brought to the big screen. Wouldn’t you know it, the movie is based on a book from New York Times best-selling author Taylor Jenkins Reid (whose Daisy Jones and the Six was recently adapted to a miniseries on Prime Video). The novelist was lucky enough to have the opportunity to adapt her own novel with her TV screenwriter husband Alex J. Reid. One True Loves arrived in limited theatrical release on April 7th and expanded to streaming platforms on April 14th.

But about that One True Loves premise. Listen to this one. A newly-engaged woman is torn between two men when her first husband—who was presumed dead after an aircraft accident at sea—returns from a deserted island years later. That’s a doozy fit for a beach read!

A bearded man hugs a crying woman in One True Loves
Photo courtesy of The Avenue

Pause for a moment on the concept described above or try the trailer. Can you picture it as a heavily dramatic conundrum similar to the third act of Cast Away? Can you also see something so preposterous that it lends itself to farce and folly? Truthfully, both would probably play well for completely different reasons.

Alas, the challenge is choosing a dedicated route with One True Loves. Dabbling in both tones and playing in the middle won’t do. Either the emotional theatrics are undercut by the silliness or, vice versa, what should be light and plucky is pounded down by stark reality. Try as it may, One True Loves and its director Andy Fickman (Playing with Fire, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2) fall for the ineffective hopscotch between tones.

A man in a suit jacked leads a woman in a red dress outside.
Photo courtesy of The Avenue

On the surface and from the novel itself, One True Loves is built for drama. Hamilton’s Philippa Soo plays the central woman Emma. We are introduced to Emma at her own engagement party. She’s set to marry a charming music teacher and childhood friend named Sam, played by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Marvel star Simu Liu. However, we learn quickly through a surprise phone call that Sam was not Emma’s first great love.

That would be the strapping Jesse, the man on the other end of the phone, embodied by Hacksaw Ridge supporting actor Luke Bracey. Laid out through an extended flashback, Emma was a travel journalist years ago and Jesse was her photographer partner. The two Los Angelinos toured the world on jet-set adventures in married bliss. When Jesse’s helicopter crashed into the Pacific, he was feared lost until this phone call.

A woman smiles towards her sister at a shop counter.
Photo courtesy of The Avenue

After years of grieving and not giving up hope, Emma eventually moved back home to New England and took a job at the family bookstore. Emma’s big sister Marie (Michaela Conlin of Bones) became her voice of reason, sounding board, and support system before Sam reconnected with her. Now, with the reemergence of Jesse, Emma is rightfully unnerved on what to do with two eager men representing two time periods of her life.

By golly, One True Loves drops this turmoil bomb right into our laps as viewers. It begs the question of what would you do in the same difficult situation. You will spend the movie looking for flaws in Jesse and Sam on an imaginary scorecard that would help your and Emma’s decision. Ultimately, audiences might find themselves weighing the choice of honoring a marriage that rekindles the past versus the potential of a future built from closure of that same past. How you answer the big quandary will be very telling for your enjoyment.

A man with a backpack over his shoulder looks forward in One True Loves.
Photo courtesy of The Avenue

The sizing up of the suitors is where One True Loves begins to stagger between the tones and the ensuing tug-of-war between Emma’s romances and realities with the two men are oddly interwoven in the movie. Emma honors a request from Jesse to spend a weekend with her at their old rustic cabin. Luke Bracey plays his half with the longing passion of a man who has spent years fighting for survival with only his wife keeping his spirit intact. He’s a broken man, but a devoted one to the end. The swoon is all there.

On the other side, we have Sam who respectfully, yet regrettably, agrees to grant Emma this time to sort out her affairs (literally and figuratively) with Jesse. While the equivalent of a Nicholas Sparks romance is happening at that cabin, One True Loves has Simu Liu spending the majority of his scenes pouring his heart out in rants of doubt clouding hope to a growing crowd of high school orchestra students and faculty members who are astonished with his part in what has become a ”throuple” tabloid story.

A man looks in despair towards his fiance.
Photo courtesy of The Avenue

Unfortunately, Sam’s half of the love story feels like it belongs in another novel and movie. As jovial and as charismatic as Simu Liu truly is as an actor with eye-grabbing screen presence, his Sam is treated as the unfailing cute alternative and not enough of a romantic equal to his competition. Given lines like “I just want her to love me more than she loves him,” his puppy dog affection is used to elicit light sympathy and smiles more than knee-weakening appeal. Let the Marvel superhero use his heat like Hugh Jackman did in Someone Like You during his X-Men prime.

With this tonal split, the success of One True Loves comes down to Phillipa Soo’s Emma. Thanks to intact character shading from Taylor Jenkins Reid bringing her own chapters to the screen, Emma is written and presented with depth and visible change. Soo had the great challenge of portraying two emotional arcs within the same character and convincingly addresses the conflict that different lovers can make one a different person.

A woman smiles towards a suitor in One True Loves.
Photo courtesy of The Avenue

Still, as One True Loves attempts, is it as easy as taking a ring off to pretend you’re not married and engaged? At the same time, the crisis is soft when both men are stand-up gentlemen working great bods. The crux is Emma stepping back to let her present situation– not the past of the future– decide what others are asking of her and where her heart resides. Because of incomplete commitment to a stronger tone, the crucial decision we’re all waiting for is missing its peak dramatic impact.

Go back to the possible comedic version of the One True Loves premise one more time. Trade in the extremely ineffectual musical score from Nathan Wang, complete with DeBussy “Clair de lune” drops, and commit to the soundtrack of coffee shop pop that was peppered throughout. The movie is billed as a modern twist, but, honestly, where are the deserted islands on this planet in an era with thick Google mapping and satellite imagery? Lean on the absurdity with the “gee whiz” pickle of a “what’s a girl to do” gal trying to decide between two handsome dueling beaus pining for her attention. Admiring the semi-straight effort, bets could be made where this cookier version would play better than this soapy one and fit the comedy strengths of his director Andy Fickman.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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