Well, Amazon Prime sure gave us a hard nut to crack this time.
You know you’re in for trouble when your movie review starts with “so after staring at a blank page for twenty minutes, I still don’t know what to say about this movie.” It’s not that I don’t have any impressions from sitting through Mike Cahill’s latest offering, it’s that I have so many contradicting impressions of it.
Did it lay out a coherent narrative? Not really. Did it at least use its weirdness as a vehicle for some interesting concepts. Kinda. Was it well acted? Well, a very talented cast tackled the material heroically, as near as I can figure. Was it any good? Maybe?
A mind-bending love story following Greg (Owen Wilson) who, after recently being divorced and then fired, meets the mysterious Isabel (Salma Hayek), a woman living on the streets and convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is a computer simulation.
Torn in Two
Bliss, conceptually and in practice, is a bifurcated film. Greg’s family has been torn in two, and he’s living a double life hiding an opioid addiction. An absurd tragedy rips him out of his hollow but safe corporate world and drops him into the world of the homeless and socially invisible.
And then you get to the point where the film reveals Greg’s existence to be an inside-out version of the Matrix, complete with colored pills.
Beyond the literal story, the film is really structured to feel like two films, at times only tenuously connected. The first hour takes place in the simulated reality, and features its own color palate and film grain. The second half takes place in the “real” world, suffused with crisp, sunny colors and visuals. Isabel and Greg are two different characters in each, leading to a different tenor and temperature to their interactions and Hayek and Wilson’s performances.
One of the biggest headaches in Bliss is that potentially good ideas or story beats constantly get hamstrung by the mismatch between the film’s halves. I really loved Salma Hayek’s performance as the probably crazy Isabel, but when the film transforms her into Dr. Isabel, the engine stalls. All of the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that maker her a fascinating character, akin to Robin Williams in The Fisher King, don’t work when she’s a high profile scientist famed for creating virtual reality, but is still acting completely wild and dodgy.
Owen Wilson plays virtual Greg as emotionally shell-shocked, and real world Greg as jovial and enthusiastic. He’s more than capable of both roles, hell has played both roles multiple times, but they don’t work in the same film. He gets asked to flip his motivations on a dime a few times too often, which is a shame because I also really enjoyed his acting.
It’s About Drugs, Right?
This problem is everywhere. The charm of the first act is that Isabel could be bullshitting about VR and all the inexplicable stuff is just part of their drug use. When she’s shown to be truthful, it falls apart: Cahill wants to keep some of the “its not real” tension so ends up making the explanation for VR flimsy and nonsensical. The film can’t seem to keep its story straight, and like Isabel, feels like its just saying things to manipulate.
Down the Rabbit Hole
There’s a good movie hiding under the surface of Bliss, or at least the ideas that could lead to one. An office drone who has a breakdown and goes on a weeks-long drug bender with a mysterious and mercurial stranger is a good hook. Having that tension of “maybe her crazy story is true…” hanging over the plot is also great. Ideas like how being a cog in the corporate machine and being homeless renders you invisible in different but not altogether dissimilar ways, or how drug abuse is viewed when a socially mobile white man does it versus when a poor woman of color does it, have a lot of meat on them. Bliss just doesn’t seem to want to chew on any one concept long enough to digest it.