Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.
Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng
Director: Mike Cahill
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie. Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one. There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers? No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere. I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.
The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by. Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise. This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question. It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does. The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.
Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen. He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most. As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all. Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.
Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real. The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him. That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from. Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help. Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?
While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points. If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration. It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us. If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.
That’s the oddest thing about Bliss. Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it. Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy. Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers. Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride. You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.
Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past. She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that. Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be. I feel largely the same way about Wilson. He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie. There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal? I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.
What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that. A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project. Find your bliss somewhere else.