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Set adrift on memory – ‘Bliss’

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What if the life you know isn’t the whole story?

Few science fiction tropes offer the kind of narrative oomph that you get from parallel worlds. It’s an ideal way to introduce that “what if?” vibe that can make for such an interesting story. A more recent evolution of the concept is from the notion that we are living inside a simulation – an idea that seems to be steadily be gaining more real-world traction.

Of course, the fact that it CAN be effective doesn’t mean it always WILL be effective. And that potential for effectiveness means that we see it used a lot; unfortunately, that high volume doesn’t necessarily translate to consistent quality.

“Bliss” – the latest film from indie genre auteur Mike Cahill – attempts to explore some of the potential ramifications that might come from learning that what you believe to be real … isn’t. And while it does find room for some interesting ideas and a couple of sly subversions, it unfortunately becomes rather tangled in its own construction, to no one’s benefit.

Cahill, who wrote and directed the film, has a history of doing a lot with a little, crafting a pair of marvelous genre gems in “Another Earth” and “I Origins.” He’s venturing into familiar territory here, but despite some big ideas and strong performances from his leads, the film never quite clicks, particularly in its chaotic and vaguely unsatisfying third act.

Things aren’t going great for Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson, “Marry Me”). He’s recently divorced and struggling to maintain a relationship with his children. He hates his job as a mid-level executive type for a technical support company. And he spends all his time sketching images from his head, vivid pictures of a place he’s never been and people he’s never met, memories of things he’s never known.

Then, one day, it all crumbles. He gets called to the carpet by his boss and fired, an event with an absurd and tragic aftermath. He flees to the bar across the street, only to encounter a stranger who will fundamentally alter his life.

Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek, “Like a Boss”) is a wild-haired weirdo who captures Greg’s attention by telling him that he is “real,” unlike the vast majority of people in the world. She has a depth of impossible knowledge of his situation while also demonstrating an ability to manipulate the world around her – an ability that Greg apparently shares, much to his initial dismay and eventual delight.

Greg is quickly swept up into Isabel’s strange world – one that involves ingesting odd crystals and wandering through homeless encampments and lots of talk about what it’s like in the “real” world, among other things. All the while, Greg’s worried daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper, TV’s “See”) is trying desperately to track him down, though his son Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., “Critical Thinking”) is less willing to forgive.

But it isn’t until Greg demands proof of Isabel’s claims that things get truly wild. You see, it turns out that she’s telling the truth – the world in which they’re currently living is a simulation. And when she helps him find his way out, well … let’s just say that the usual simulation dynamic is flipped on its head.

“Bliss” is an undeniably ambitious undertaking, but the realization of that ambition is rather uneven. The ideas that drive the film are relatively familiar ones – world as computer simulation, parallel existences – and while Cahill does find some ways to address them in a different manner, the differences ultimately feel rather surface level; it’s as though he goes to the trouble of deconstruction, only to simply rebuild things just as they were.

Narrative ambiguity has been a central theme in each of Cahill’s three features, though “Bliss” is probably the most opaque of the trio in terms of that ambiguity. He seems to take great delight in the bifurcated nature of his story, choosing to leave things open-ended to a degree that might well prove frustrating to some moviegoers. What’s real and what’s not – the central question of the film – isn’t ever fully, truly defined. How OK with that you are will likely dictate how you wind up feeling about the film.

Now, leaving aside the general muddiness of the narrative, the performances are quite good – especially the pair at the top. It’s a genuine departure for Wilson, who has completely phased out that aw-shucks amiability for something far less charming. He manages to evoke Greg’s quiet brokenness and general malaise wonderfully; even in the moments where he should be triumphant, there’s an omnipresent tinge of sadness to his portrayal that suits the material perfectly. Hayek is going for it in a different way; Isabel is a loud and brassy weirdo, the type whose rambling skates up to the edge of incoherence but never tumbles over. Wilson and Hayek are an odd pairing, to be sure, but it’s one that works surprisingly well.

The supporting cast has its highlights as well. Cooper is very good as Greg’s concerned daughter; Lendeborg gets a few moments as Greg’s decidedly-less-concerned son. We also get a couple of delightfully strange cameos – weirdo philosopher and intellectual Slavoj Zizek turns up as himself for a beat, while the Science Guy himself Bill Nye shows up for a couple of scenes.

“Bliss” is a movie whose ambitions outstripped its execution. Mike Cahill is a legitimate talent, the kind of auteur of whom genre filmmaking could use more, but his eyes were bigger than his stomach on this one. Strong work from Wilson and Hayek helps even things out to an extent, but even that isn’t quite enough. Despite Cahill’s best efforts to show it to us, we never quite see the Matrix in the way he clearly intended. Not a great movie, but an interesting effort – sci-fi fans might well find it worth their while.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 February 2021 07:42

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