Dir: Mike Cahill. Starring: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Madeline Zima, Nesta Cooper, Joshua Leonard. 15, 103 mins
Director Mike Cahill thrives on discomfort. His sci-fi visions have always relied on an element of confrontation – what it would be like to cross paths with a perfect double or unlock the secrets of reincarnation by looking into another’s eyes, as tackled in 2011’s Another Earth and 2014’s I Origins. But the scale of his ambition sometimes overruns the practicality of his budget or the logic of his script, so that his work is less a pleasing headscratcher, more a jumble sale of ideas. Bliss, unfortunately, sees Cahill succumb entirely to this impulse.
He commits to creating a rich, expansive world, then fails to find anything meaningful within it. Greg (Owen Wilson), sat in his office, whiles away the hours drawing Mediterranean vistas that are, in his mind, concretely real. “It has a feeling and the feeling’s real,” he assures himself. There’s a woman in some of the drawings – one day, suddenly, she careens into his life.
Isabel (Salma Hayek), who’s inexplicably dressed like Helena Bonham Carter, insists that she and Greg are one of the few real people in this world. Everything else is an illusion. Right before he dismisses her as nothing but a harmless kook, she shows him that, with a flick of the wrist, she can manipulate both people and objects. Isabel is part-superhero out of spandex, part-manic pixie dream girl, part-Morpheus from The Matrix. From there, the two of them start a rampage across the city, convinced that there are no consequences and no victims.
There’s a fleeting pleasure in Greg and Isabel’s days of anarchy. Wilson suits the role perfectly, since he’s always had a skill for creating characters that act like excitable puppies suddenly hit by the weight of the world. He’ll jauntily skip through his lines, always reacting with a trademark “wow” when Greg discovers something new and magical. But the rest of him – his expressions and body – have a drooping weight to them that suggest Greg feels lost, instead of eagerly surrendering to the unknown.
But Bliss flounders any time it tries to be profound – even if scientist Bill Nye and philosopher Slavoj Žižek make brief cameos, creating a smokescreen of intellectual clout. It struggles to deliver with clarity what it exactly it wants to be about, or the questions it wants to ask of its audience. We also follow the lives of Greg’s two neglected children, Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) and Emily (Nesta Cooper). But Cahill’s script never tackles the obvious question: if Greg’s children don’t exist beyond his imagination or the codes of some computer programme, then why care about their future? What have they risked? What weight does their pain have?
Near its end, Bliss appears to suggest that there’s a real chance that, if we do too much good and change too many things, we might become too happy. How could that possibly be anyone’s real concern?
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