Less than Paradise: ‘Bliss’

(c) Amazon Studios

“Entry ‘Einen’: Einen Wahn verlieren macht weiser als eine Wahrheit finden.”
(“Entry ‘Parting’: Parting with a delusion makes one wiser than falling in with a truth.”)

– Ludwig Börne, as posthumously shared in Gesammelte Schriften von Ludwig Börne (Collected writings by Ludwig Börne) (published 1840)

*NOTE: I saw Bliss as part of an online advanced screening on Wednesday – 3 February 2021

Does anyone besides me remember the movie K-PAX? It’s okay if you don’t – it wasn’t a big hit upon release and anything starring Kevin Spacey should be tread upon lightly these days (I rewatched Working Girl recently and his performance in that might as well be used against him in court). Still, movies like K-PAX and 1995’s Don Juan Demarco (starring that other problematic leading man, Johnny Depp) represent the sort of films from which we were supposed to have moved away: the ones that play mental illness for laughs and that immersing the audience in lead characters’ delusions represents some grand statement.

Apparently, writer-director Mike Cahill never got the message. I haven’t seen his movies Another Earth or I Origins, but the pretentiousness of this flick doesn’t make me want to seek them out anyway. Bliss falls into that annoying artistic trope that thinks simply mentioning a big, important topic makes one an expert in it. It does not.

That Cahill and his collaborators are so clumsy in the execution of their premise – putting the audience in the mind of people who believe the world is a simulation is bad enough, but one can’t help but chuckle at the fact that Amazon are releasing the flick just as Rodney Ascher’s new Glitch in the Matrix documentary is gaining wide attention by letting simulation truthers rant on ad nauseum.

Gregg (Owen Wilson) takes Isabel (Salma Hayek) at her word rather easily. (Amazon Studios)

I have yet to see Ascher’s documentary, but if it’s anything like his Room 237 (an aggregation of conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), I imagine the former similarly allows its interview subjects to prattle on as the camera stands by to passively absorb all o the “evidence” they present. On the one hand, part of me now finds it hard to observe a conspiracy theory collection in light of QAnon/MAGAssholes just tried to storm the Capitol Building. On the other hand, I can respect Ascher for not punching down at his subjects, no matter how outrageous their raving.

Mike Cahill, by contrast, treats we the audience as if we’re stupid. He drops hints every now and then that his two leads aren’t delusional, despite the harm they cause.

Our story concerns Greg Whittle (Owen Wilson), a guy who works at an office doing… something. We never know because what little time we see him in the office, he’s absent mindedly sketching rather than doing his job, whatever that is. He’s called into his boss’s office to be fired. He leaps at his boss, the boss jumps back, trips, and cracks his skull on the edge of his desk. Greg clumsily hides the body and heads for the bar across the street. He’s suspiciously calm about all this.

He’s equally about the woman he meets in the bar: Isabel (Salma Hayek), a bohemian who tells Greg that their world is an illusion and that he shouldn’t sweat killing his boss because the boss was the equivalent to an NPC. She proves this be showing off her expert telekinesis. Greg is not only calm about this news, he’s very accepting of it, given he claims to be hearing it for the first time.

Cahill wants us to never be sure whether Greg and Isabel are delusional or really delusional or – as shown in the film’s second act – respected professors at a who live on the Mediterranean where they’re partaking in a super-high-tech experiment exploring the benefiting of immersion within an artificial reality. If they are, then why does the film spend so much time away from our two leads in the presence of Greg’s worried daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) and indifferent son Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.); why the hell would we care about a pair of NPCs? But if they aren’t NPCs and Greg is delusional, why does the first scene show him leaving his office in his wallet only for it to phase out of existence?

This isn’t narrative ambiguity done intelligently, this is tossing in a bunch of plot twists because you think they make your story more clever. This is lazy film-making from a creator with delusions of high brow statement-making.

Ambiguous reality films can not only be done well, the medium of film gives them a certain level of experimentation, in spite of linear and literal nature. That’s how a bug-nuts Philip K. Dick story (is there any other kind?) like “We can Remember It for You Wholesale” can become the ambiguous popcorn flick Total Recall. I didn’t like the first Matrix, let alone its even-worse sequels, but one of my favorite films is David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which had a much better handle on the “Is this world real?” concept. (I maintain that eXistenZ is the best video game movie not actually based on a video game.)

Isabel (Salma Hayek) and Greg (Owen Wilson) shortly before they commit telekinetic mass murder. Yes, really. (Amazon Studios)

And, of course, Tracy Letts’ play Bug (made into the William Friedkin film starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon) was better at showing how easy it is to fall into someone else’s delusion when you long for human company. These films expertly pull off what Bliss struggles to do.

Which is not to say the film is all bad. The flaws in Cahill’s script notwithstanding, he gets great performances out of his cast. I can’t recall any other work by Nesta Cooper or Jorge Lendeborg, but I certainly hope to see these young Black actors in more work soon. And this film stands as further evidence that Salma Hayek is a fantastic actor who is never regarded as such simply because she’s drop-dead gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, cinematographer Markus Förderer does the film’s best work in the way he decorates each frame. From the grittiness of the homeless camp where Greg and Isabel live (did I not mention that?) to the near-glowing postcard beauty of their Mediterranean home, the film is expertly shot and a delight watch. That most visual effects are subtle and kept to a minimum just helps Förderer’s photography all the more.

Unfortunately, the acting and cinematography are all so good that they just further highlight the flaws of Cahill’s script. He has a low view of his two homeless, drug-addicted leads and thinks only way they can be redeemed is if they’re from a reality where their drug abuse and mental illness isn’t real. That’s not only elitist as hell, Cahill can’t even stick to it and tries to have it both ways by not committing to which reality is legit (again, that goddamn final scene with Isabel).

There are so many aesthetic triumphs in Bliss that it’s a shame to see them wasted on a story exploring an idea supported by Elon Musk. The cast deserve better and so do the audience. Do yourself a favor and the other films I mentioned a try. Don’t exist in a reality where you wasted almost two hours on Bliss. Take it from me: that reality sucks.

GRADE:                                             D

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