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Is anyone else noticing this? During these early weeks of 2021, the simulation theory is in, a bizarre trend that includes the TV hell of “Wandavision” and a documentary that theorizes about how we might be living in a simulation, “A Glitch in the Matrix” (which also comes out today, and which I also reviewed). Maybe the world is trying to tell us (or at least me) something with “Bliss,” the third sim film, but I couldn’t tell you what it’s trying to convey through writer/director Mike Cahill because this sci-fi picture is so schmaltzy and also pointlessly incomprehensible. Within the whimsy of “Bliss,” what is real and what is not? What does it matter?
Owen Wilson is recognized for his sense of whimsy in his acting—no it’s a coincidence that “wow!” became his unofficial catchphrase—but towards the beginning of “Bliss,” he plays someone more clouded and tortured, sitting in an office. He can only imagine such wonder while sitting at his computer for a company called Technical Difficulties, painting images of a lakeside villa he sees in his thoughts. A viciously desaturated color palette underscores how horrible things are, and Cahill’s writing makes things even worse for Greg, with a frightening scene in which he accidentally murders his employer by smashing his skull onto a table. Greg, not one to leave a body lying around, props the body up to a window, behind a curtain, and flees to a neighboring pub. Also, you must try to play this Which Bliss Movie Character Are You quiz.
Which Bliss Movie Character Are You?
Inside, Greg is dealt with aggressively by a lady named Isabel (Salma Hayek), who yells to him, “You’re real!” and gradually establishes the impression that she has powers. She can knock a tray out of a waiter’s hand from many feet just by waving her hand. The trick is to inhale some yellow crystals, as well as the fact that, according to Isabel, many people at the pub aren’t “genuine.” But Greg is only completely convinced of her powers (bear with me here) when she arranges for the boss’ death to appear to be a suicide, when the corpse jumps out the window and crashes many stories below. Isabel persuades Greg to hide out with her in her place—a makeshift flat beneath the freeway—and uses the opportunity to demonstrate to Greg that he, too, can blow things up with his finger.
Like a gang of super-powered gutter-punks, the two bound across the city with almost weird indie comic abandon. They go to a roller rink and use their magical finger guns to blow people to the ground while solemn and erotic music plays, perfect for images of when they knock skates in the restroom. But there’s an emotional anchor to Greg’s newfound bliss—his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) is searching for him, profoundly distressed that her father has gone AWOL. When she next sees him, two weeks have passed and he’s on a row populated by drug dealers. “Bliss” approaches this as though a huge metaphor is in the works, and instead of drawing the spectator in, it does the reverse. Cahill’s film ends up exploiting homelessness and addiction as tired metaphors, rendering most of its notions about “finding pleasure” meaningless.
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A tedious 50 minutes into the film (and as indicated in the more thrilling trailer), “Bliss” takes Isabel and Greg to a different, more colorful, and happier existence by the inhalation of special blue crystals. They awaken in a scientific environment resembling a resort lobby, connected to The Brain Collection, a massive box of floating brains. Isabel informs him that this is the actual world, and that this is a contraption she built to make cynical people comprehend how horrible things can be. Greg has no recollection of entering this simulation, thus he has no idea of the history of this location or that he is actually married to Isabel, but he recognizes the setting: it’s the gorgeous lakeside paradise from his drawings. He almost doesn’t want to leave until he notices a silhouette of Emily searching for her father.
“Bliss” is far more bizarre and monotonous than it is excellent, and it’s so perplexing that even the film’s sense of humor is a mystery. At the very least, we have the chemistry of Wilson and Hayek, who can turn Cahill’s more bizarre romantic ideas—knocking a bunch of people down at the roller rink—into movie-star indulgence rather than merely strange.
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