About midway through Bliss there is what I’m sure the filmmakers consider a pretty big rug-pull. A gigantic reveal that is supposed to leave the viewer knocked on their rear in shock as the events onscreen redefine all of what occurred up until this point. I’m positive this is the intended reaction, even though the movie doesn’t come close to eliciting such a thing. It’s a truly baffling choice, in a film chock full of them, and the only way I think it might work is if the viewer has never seen a movie before. Where I must give credit to Bliss, at least in terms of taking a bold swing, is that it’s the only “rug-pull” movie I’ve ever seen that then tries to jam the rug back under your feet and tell you that you’ve been entertained, when really you’ve just been shuffled around the room for a bit.
I won’t spoil, in case you are planning on subjecting yourself to this strange misfire of a movie, which takes two typically good performers, Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, and puts them into a narrative so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but to feel embarrassed for them both. It’s weird, because the premise of this movie, as well as the pedigree behind it, led me to believe that it was right up my alley. Unfortunately, I don’t think I know of an alley where this would fly. Hopefully it works better for you than it did for me.
Written and directed by Mike Cahill, whose Another Earth and I Origins are quite well-liked amongst sci-fi fans (I think about the chilling final moments of the former quite regularly), Bliss tells the story of Greg (Owen Wilson), a man who recently lost his job, went through a divorce, and is now losing his connection with his children. He seems nice enough, so much so that this misfortune seems pretty tragic on its face, but immediately there is a scent of dishonesty in the air. What don’t we know about Greg that may have put him into this situation? Soon after leaving his office for the last time, he meets up with a woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek), who regularly asserts that the life Greg is living is not real, but rather a simulation packed with what we’d now call “non-player characters.” Basically, Greg is in the matrix, and as two of the very few “real” people within this false reality, he and Isabel must team up to…uh…something. The thing is, Isabel is a little bit dirty, a little bit flaky, and clearly up to something. Also, she has a vial of brightly colored gems which, when ingested, give her and Greg the ability to manipulate this false reality using just their minds. Furthermore, if the duo can obtain and ingest a different color of gem, they can break free from the simulation for good.
Where does one go to obtain this other type of gem? Well, you gotta know a guy, and that guy probably lives in a shady apartment on a shady street filled with shady characters. And since Isabel herself lives in a tent under a bridge, and is connected to a handful of less than savory people, most of whom are scraping by on the fringe of the city, one might assume that Isabel isn’t telling the truth about this whole “simulation” thing. As she drags helpless Greg around town hunting for magic gems to consume, defying him to leave her side while keeping him at a distance from both his family and his responsibilities, it’s starting to look like Isabel may actually be a metaphor for something. An extremely obvious metaphor for something. I’ll leave it at that.
The structure of the story — complete with the aforementioned rug-pull — is arranged in such a way that the film always feels two steps behind the viewer, and the one time it manages to outpace its audience, it only does so for a few dull minutes, after which point it falls behind again, soon fading into the distance unceremoniously as we crawl toward a finish line that is identical to the one we imagined at the outset. The pieces are all there, but they need to be rearranged. There is indeed a good idea somewhere in this hodgepodge of haphazardly arranged sections of plot, one that effectively marries family drama to hard sci-fi in a way that is compelling and fun, but Bliss works overtime to trip over itself seemingly for no reason than just to do so. The film seems so in love with its perceived cleverness that it is blind to how sloppily it tells its story.
It’s not all bad though. Throughout, there are small moments where we can see, despite his meme status of late, that Owen Wilson is capable of wringing real drama out of just about anything, as well as wresting real laughs from even the darkest drama. He’s perfect for the movie this wants to be, just not the movie it is. Same goes for Hayek, whose career has been one of regular, consistent reassertion that she’s so much more than a pretty face. Hayek is a serious talent, and her oddball roles of late have exhibited how much fun she has with her craft (I didn’t love The Hitman’s Bodyguard, but in it she gives a grand comic performance that I think back on frequently and fondly). Here she does her best, bringing a lively energy to a thankless role. Isabel takes the form of a manic pixie dream girl — one that is heavy on the manic, not very pixie like, and quite unworthy of dream girl designation. And while Hayek seems to understand this, the script doesn’t understand itself. I’d say she’s miscast, but once again, she’s perfect for the movie this wants to be. It’s just not that movie.
I found Bliss to be a struggle. Don’t get me wrong, a movie being “easy to crack” does not necessarily make it a bad one. But if a cryptic structure is the only hook from which the narrative hangs, it had better be smart, and it had better land on its feet in such a way that it doesn’t feel like an empty novelty in hindsight. Bliss, unfortunately, is an empty novelty, presented in a way that can only keep the audience at a distance.
Released for streaming February 5, 2021.