Film Review: “Bliss” Isn’t

by Alexander C. Kafka

The disappointing new film Bliss is maddening in ways both intended and surely unintended. A heady rumination on the nature of reality featuring two bright stars in quirky character roles was an attractive proposition, but it doesn’t pan out.

The film sometimes conveys a real sense of dissociation. The script could have been honed with that goal in mind and become a workable study of two drug-addled down-and-outs, Greg and Isabel (Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek), living in a tent city on the streets of L.A. 

Alternatively, Bliss could have been a pure sci-fi reverie as we learn that the couple’s gritty misadventures are actually a computer-simulated role-playing game devised in another L.A. of affluence, comfort, and ease. In lounges, players access the virtual reality through tubes up their noses connected to large tanks with floating brains. Take that, Xbox! This provocatively reverses the premise of the Matrix franchise, in that rather than being slaves to technological overlords, humanity has been freed by its own digital prowess, revisiting a synthesized street life only as a reminder of the pollution, poverty, and mayhem civilization has overcome. 

Unfortunately, writer and director Mike Cahill can’t decide between those two premises and makes it ambiguous whether we are watching tripped-out street people, visitors transported from the parallel utopia and armed with special powers, or some combination of the two. From there, the movie quickly unravels. 

Sometimes it seems like Cahill is putting his thumb on the hallucinating street-people scenario because the divorced Greg’s children, Emily (an endearing Nesta Cooper) and Arthur (George Lendeborg Jr.) are real enough to converse with each other outside of his presence, observe and follow him, and meet him at a park bench. At other moments, Cahill seems to be favoring the Ugly-L.A.-as-simulation plot, as Greg and Isabel, with superhuman waves of their hands, throw roller-skaters around a rink, crush the van of a predatory thug, and so on. 

In Blissful L.A. — rendered somewhat cheesily by photography director Markus Forderer in golden wide-angled hues with smatterings of superimposed rainbow glare — Isabel is a top scientist playing a leading part in creating the Ugly L.A. game space. It seems, however, that her experiments are running into serious difficulties. 

The script’s moral confusion echoes its conceptual muddles. Cahill contrasts the affluent utopia with the deep inequality of the dismal present. But Greg and Isabel, although they are people of science in an at least partially enlightened Blissful L.A., seem to relish the death and destruction they cause in Ugly L.A. Never mind that we’ve been told the role playing is supposed to be an exercise in empathy. Isabel also assures Greg that his children aren’t real, nor are his responsibilities toward them. 

Some of the folks we see in Blissful L.A. are holograms, including the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who makes a cameo in which he critiques the utopia. This is an echo or an homage or something, I suppose, to Cornel West’s visits to The Matrix. Žižek’s remarks suggest that the utopia may, in fact, have strong dystopian undercurrents, but given its uncertain existence, it’s hard for a viewer to get too worked up about that. 

We meet Greg as a do-nothing, day-dreaming executive at Technical Difficulties, a trouble-shooting call center. When he’s not on the phone trying to refill his drug prescription for inconsistent and possibly imagined ailments, he is drawing detailed sketches of what turns out to be Blissful L.A. He is soon, understandably, fired. Then, in a daze, he accidentally kills his boss before Isabel, using special powers, makes it look like a suicide. Then again — we later discover — only some or maybe none of that happened. Again, how attached can an audience become to these contingent characters in an equally contingent world?

If you are puzzled by all this, you’re still not nearly as befuddled as Owen Wilson looks for the picture’s entirety. In yet another parallel universe, one can imagine a similar and more effective film exploring psychological dissociation in a more deliberate way. That film, too, would star Wilson, whose well-publicized struggles with depression would amplify his character’s tribulations. The movie would make better use of the duality of Wilson, whose surfer-dude charm and exaggerated natural features — the alpine-ridge nose and the Dudley Do-Right chin — can look matinee-idol handsome or hobo grungy, depending on the setting, costumes,  makeup,  light, and grease quotient in his hair.

Sadly, in this film and in this universe, Wilson doesn’t have much dialogue to work with. In endless, patience-depleting static and tracking shots, we watch him watching Isabel, who drones huskily on — like a suddenly homeless Bel Air new-age therapist — about rising beyond his consciousness, believing in her, her believing in him, blah blah blah. Belying such counsel, she then flaunts her bosoms for a drive-by John, whom she and Greg proceed to assault, rob, and carjack. Is this the same Isabel who, glammed up in Blissful L.A., spouts off on the riches derived from asteroid mining? 

“It’s starting to feel,” Greg tells her, “like you’re making this up as you go along.” 

Greg, we know that feeling.