Truth and Movies

Bliss

Review by Charles Bramesco @intothecrevasse

Directed by

Mike Cahill

Starring

Nesta Cooper Owen Wilson Salma Hayek

Anticipation.

That Mike Cahill has a new movie out will come as a surprise to most of us.

Enjoyment.

It could be a while until his next one.

In Retrospect.

The cameos from Bill Nye and Slavoj Žižek were fun.

Mike Cahill’s disastrous sci-fi parable sees Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek slip into a simulated realty.

From the French nicknaming absinthe “la fée verte” in the 19th century to Lou Reed declaring heroin his wife in song with the Velvet Underground, men have long conflated the pleasures of intoxication with the temptations of womankind. These flighty mistresses make you feel good, right up until they take over your life, at which point they then leave you more broken than you’ve ever been before. Ingest, crash, repeat.

The inherent objectification of likening a person to a controlled substance has made the device increasingly difficult to pass muster with today’s fine-tuned misogyny radars. And the more involved the metaphor, the more thinly a writer must spread it. It’s not a winning strategy for something as lengthy and involved as a feature film, a lesson that Mike Cahill’s latest sci-fi parable Bliss illustrates to disastrous effect.

It’s on an exceptionally bad day in the life of Greg (Owen Wilson), a drone at a tech support office in which everyone speaks in apologies, that his path crosses Isabel’s (Salma Hayek). Popping pills, divorced from his wife and estranged from their kids, he’s called in for a meeting that starts with his dismissal and ends with him inadvertently murdering his boss. He hides the body and heads for a cool-down drink at the dingy watering hole across the street, where the shabby yet intriguing Isabel eats a few glowing yellow crystals and telepathically disappears the corpse Greg left behind.

As she explains, they are two of a scant number of real people living in a simulated reality she has learned how to control with the crystals’ aid. (That this film’s release would concur with that of the similar yet superior A Glitch in the Matrix arouses suspicions.) She and her world-warping gems – later, we’ll learn that eating exactly 10 blue ones can transport their user to an idyllic alternate dimension – suck Greg into an addictive downward spiral that spits them out in one of the many homeless encampments dotting LA’s forlorner streets.

Greg and Isabel shed their lamentable circumstances for much of the second act by getting so zonked on bluies that they slip into that far preferable parallel universe. There, they are wealthy spouses with a palatial Californian estate, hobnobbing with thought leaders while ignoring the aggrieved underclass raging in revolt just outside their soiree.

Cahill’s clumsy attempt at class commentary eventually thuds back to earth, or at least, the version of it that we’ve been presented with. The many logical holes and other dissonance get explained away in the final minutes, as the hallucinated Isabel vanishes and Greg emerges from a drug-induced stupor into a rehab meeting. There’s an argument to be made that it’s unsporting to divulge the true nature of a movie’s twist ending in its review, but when interpretation of the entire text hinges on that revelation, it’s impossible not to.

Either way, there’s not much to worry about missing out on here. Even before the big gotcha wipes away anything the preceding hundred minutes might have meant, Greg and Isabel’s mile-high dash into degeneracy lacks any authentic grit, unfit to share a needle with the likes of Heaven Knows What. The stranger flights of fancy don’t even take us anywhere that far out, every bit as bland as the subplot following Greg’s daughter and son on their mission to reach him.

If Cahill is going to abandon his philosophical aspirations to make the whole thing about narcotics in no uncertain terms, he could have done more to create an atmosphere to match the rolling high. Instead, the rightly rejected Twilight Zone pitch gets a level of technical polish to match. We can’t feel for Greg unless we feel what Greg feels. We have to want it as badly as a lover.

Published 4 Feb 2021

Tags: Bliss Mike Cahill Owen Wilson Salma Hayek

Anticipation.

That Mike Cahill has a new movie out will come as a surprise to most of us.

Enjoyment.

It could be a while until his next one.

In Retrospect.

The cameos from Bill Nye and Slavoj Žižek were fun.

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