Bliss has its moments, but is ultimately far too satisfied with the faux-profundity of its deeply obvious ideas.
Writer-director Mike Cahill is no stranger to spinning original sci-fi concepts into deeply felt personal tales that tackle the fragility of human life, as seen in past features Another Earth and I Origins. Cahill is up to the same business with Bliss, although the application of the word “original” is generous here. Taking a page straight out of The Matrix, the film embraces simulation theory, the world of the film one that is being used by a wealthy futuristic society to instill within its members an appreciation for their seemingly perfect existence. Yet, in true Cahill fashion, the sci-fi flourishes are mere window dressing for the story of a deeply damaged soul finally forced to confront both his own personal demons and the heartbreaking consequences of his actions.
Owen Wilson plays the protagonist, Greg, an overstressed telemarketer who, as the film opens, is dealing with a divorce, a fractured relationship with his two children, potential unemployment, and, before long, manslaughter. His world is turned upside down upon meeting Isabel (Salma Hayek), a mysterious — and seemingly penniless and homeless — woman with magical powers who introduces Greg to the idea that everything around them is an illusion, thus granting them control over all others. It’s in this early going that Bliss works best, as Cahill carefully teases out the film’s central mystery. Could this (potentially insane) woman be telling the truth? Greg and Isabel take an inverse approach to the old adage “With great power comes great responsibility,” resulting in the film’s best scene, as the two harness their newfound abilities to gleefully wreak havoc at a dingy roller rink. Simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, it strikes a tonal balance the rest of the film is unfortunately unable to maintain, and it’s at the hour-mark that Bliss completely loses its footing. As the action shifts to the “real” world, in the process revealing its true intent, it becomes clear that what we are witnessing is nothing more than an allegory for…well, the redacted twist. The problem with this section is that Cahill gets bogged down in a litany of details and subplots that the audience knows mean nothing, and so it all feels like the filler it is.
Some of the particulars are at least amusing, such as the use of scientific phrases like “ugly simulation” and “F.G.P. — Fake Generated People” that sound like they sprung fully-formed from the mind of a third-grader (but which actually make sense in the context of the film), and even the appearance of Bill Nye, raving about a character’s possible appearance on Nature & Science Magazine, tickles. Such little moments suggest that actual thought was put into the creation of this world, a bit of color even as they add little thematically. Wilson delivers a legitimately great performance, his best dramatic work since The Darjeeling Limited, channeling both childlike wonder and the suffering of a man profoundly wounded by life. Hayek, meanwhile, seems to be specifically channeling Meryl Streep in Iron Weed, and is successful roughly 30 percent of the time, although she and Wilson at least muster some legitimate chemistry on screen. Unfortunately, the script does neither performer any favors, becoming increasingly more heavy-handed with each subsequent scene until its howler of an ending, which includes a character literally articulating the film’s thesis, immediately followed by a title card cut that is the equivalent to underlining bold print. It’s especially shocking considering another scene follows it. Bliss is a whole lot of Big Dick Energy, the work of an artist who firmly believes in the mind-blowing, life-altering profundity of his own work, when the reality is that it would feel more at home in an elementary school’s mandatory D.A.R.E. assembly.
You can currently stream Mike Cahill’s Bliss on Amazon.