By Courtney Thomas
While not overtly bad, Bliss felt like a formulaic movie I’d seen many times before. Most simply, it’s a Matrix type sci-fi drama centered around the question of what is real and what isn’t. The plot is confusing, not only because of the real/not real subject matter, but it plays as if any inconsistencies in the script were thought of by the writers as invitations to the audience to debate plot theories rather than as illogical missteps.
The movie begins with Greg (Owen Wilson) in a grey, depressing office job at a tech support company called Technical Difficulties. It’s a low place to find the often whimsical Owen Wilson, but throughout the movie he plays a grimmer than usual version of himself. Recently divorced, he’s distracted from work and doodles illustrations of his dream house instead of answering his phone. When he does pick up, it’s a personal call – he talks to his daughter about her upcoming graduation, and based on the conversation he also seems to have a dependence on painkillers. He’s called into the boss’s office and fired, but standing up suddenly, he startles the boss, who then hits his head against a desk and dies. Greg panics and decides to act like nothing happened, hiding the body behind a curtain and ducking out. As Greg leaves, the chorus of his coworkers answering their phones with the line “I’m sorry you’re having technical difficulties” builds, becoming almost musical, but this hint at an experimental, psychological approach never materializes in the rest of the film.
Greg walks to a bar across the street from the office building, called in perhaps the most eye-roll inducing, obviously metaphorical choice of the film, “Plato’s Dive” (escape from the cave much?). There, he meets a witchy woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek), who tells him that he’s “real” and demonstrates that she has powers over this simulation world and the fake people in the bar. She makes lights flicker, but really convinces Greg when she makes the window supporting his boss’s body open, letting the corpse fall onto the concrete below in an apparent suicide. She convinces Greg that he should leave the area immediately and wait for the police investigation to blow over before he returns, so forgetting his wallet and hawking his phone, he joins her at her makeshift home under the freeway. Isabel’s powers come from yellow crystals that she ingests, and giving some to Greg, she shows him that he too can light candles or knock over people who aren’t “real” with a wave of his hand. Isabel and Greg start an affair, and wander through the city experimenting with their powers. It’s all roller skating and teenage-style delinquent fun, until they run out of crystals.
Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) is concerned that her dad went missing and is now homeless. When she finally finds him, he’s waiting for Isabel outside a drug den. Isabel is offended that Greg cares for his daughter and accuses him of becoming too attached to something that isn’t “real.” She decides he needs to see the “real” world, so they ingest blue crystals through the nose, waking up in a lab in paradise. This is the world of Greg’s dream home from the beginning of the movie (and the home of a scientist played by Bill Nye the Science Guy). However, Greg and Isabel didn’t take the right crystal dosage, so Greg can’t remember his life in the paradise world.
In this world, Isabel shifts from impulsive and scrappy to radiating brilliance, and Greg takes it in with wide-eyed wonder. Surrounded by beauty, he lives the good life and learns about the simulation Isabel has been working on, a “brain-box” people can connect to in order to experience hardship and become more grateful for their place in the paradise world. Greg plays the supportive partner, but it’s clear Isabel’s research has problems. They have to go back to the simulation to fix it, but predictably, one of them has to end up trapped. Which is the real world after all? Was it all just the drug-induced fantasy of a desperate man? At the end of the movie, it doesn’t feel worth puzzling out.
The pacing is tedious, and the only emotionally compelling relationship, the one between Greg and his daughter, gets far too little screen time in comparison to Isabel’s whims and magic tricks. The mysterious sci-fi paradise is beautiful, but aside from the compulsory tour, little takes place there before the action is sucked back down to the drab, grimy world of Greg’s office and Isabel’s homelessness. The ambiguity, instead of making the film more engaging, shrouds the characters’ motives and makes them hard to care about. Bliss is just a reboot of sci-fi tropes, exposing the bleakness of our world with a less than satisfying romance thrown in. It is a disappointing use of both Wilson and Hayek, and too obviously a ploy to spark an audience debate.