Movie Review: “Bliss” (2021)

***I’m sure I’m going to spoil something for someone here. Don’t read if you want to go in without knowing anything at all.***

I am not quite sure how to start this review… On the one hand, I enjoyed writer-director Mike Cahill’s “Bliss,” which is launching on Amazon this week. The movie stars Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson as a couple of folks who are either drug addicts or living inside a simulation. The reason I’m not sure exactly how to open the review is that I’m not convinced that the movie offers these two potential realities with equal authority despite some indications that the intention was to do just that. Maybe the problem is that I’m more cynical than I ought to be. Or, maybe I’m just wrong about how I see things. Maybe the problem is that the simulation is altering my perception. Who knows.

“Bliss” gets going simply enough with a distracted office worker, Greg Wittle (Wilson), on the verge of being fired. Soon enough, he finds himself in a bar where he meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek). She tells him the world isn’t real, that he just has to grab her necklace with the special crystals from her ex-boyfriend who is in the bathroom of the bar, and she’ll show him what’s what. Naturally, Greg complies.

If the world is a simulation, Isabel’s special crystals help them see through it. If the two are just drug addicts, then the crystals are the good stuff.

“Bliss” isn’t the first movie to set up this question of whether we’re in a simulation or suggest that our reality isn’t what we think it is. Famously, “The Matrix” does this, but it’s not the only example either. I, personally, love the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” season finale which questions whether Buffy is a Slayer or in a mental hospital. There are plenty of other choices as well. As “Bliss” shows, the genre isn’t exhausted, but nor is the concept unique.

Of course, as I said, I’d argue that the movie isn’t setting these two potentialities on the same level. I’d argue that it doesn’t really pretend to and simply watching the opening bits of the movie gives it all away. Then again, maybe I just found the right crystals.

If the truth of this movie is that we are watching drug addicts fall down the rabbit hole, where we end up is with a story of a troubled man who falls into a codependent relationship with a troubled woman and along the way loses his daughter (Nesta Cooper) and son (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). It’s heartbreaking and it’s beautifully told.

The version of the tale which has this as a simulation is somewhat less complex and somewhat less deep. It doesn’t make the movie bad, but it is rather less heartbreaking and less beautifully constructed.

Wherever the truth may lie vis-à-vis the drugs, Cahill keeps us with Greg’s point of view – we see the world (real or fake) through his eyes. If my understanding of the movie is right, it is not too hard to still discern truth from fallacy, and that makes it all the more touching when we can see him moving down the wrong path.

Because there are these competing views of reality within the story, both Wilson and Hayek each have to play two versions of the same individuals. Hayek’s job appears more difficult as she has to go from being a woman who knows right from wrong, true from false, and who is a doctor working at the very cutting edge of her field to a woman who is a spaced out drug addict, willing to prostitute herself for enough money to get high. There is even a place where these very different takes have to blend together and Hayek carries it off perfectly.

This isn’t to undercut Wilson, who is as charismatic as ever. It is Greg through whom we see everything and it is Wilson’s job to help make us feel the emotions of the movie and that he does spectacularly, especially in the darker version of the story.

Cahill’s movie also requires that the very look of the proceedings differ in the varying worlds. One world is bright and beautiful, the other is washed out and dingy. It’s a decision that has the effect of making the audience feel better about one place than the other. We all end up wanting the vivid locale to be the real one no matter how that butts head with what else we might know or feel. Much of that reality feels too good to be true and the high gloss, high vibrancy nature of it only adds to the effect. But, since when did we not want “too good to be true” to not be true?

At the same time that the varying representations feel smart, they also have a tendency to be somewhat frustrating. “Bliss” asks us to make a choice about what we believe; about which reality we accept. My viewing of the movie puts one of the worlds as the correct one and the other as false, and not just false, but obviously and concretely false, and there’s a frustration there with how elements of the story play out once my decision is made.

It will be interesting to note as people watch “Bliss” whether anyone comes up with a different interpretation than mine (and I hope that I have been obtuse enough to not make my choice clear while still examining the movie). It isn’t always as deep as it might be, but it’s certainly intriguing.

photo credit: Amazon Studios

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