Bliss movie review: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek's film isn't inventive enough for 'no logic but magic' genre
Somewhere in there, there's a remarkable film about an absent father trying to make good with his daughter. Unfortunately, that's submerged by director Mike Cahill's distracted approach to make the film 'palatable'.
There’s no denying that Mike Cahill's Bliss, starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, is an earnest film. For Hindi cinema lovers, one might see parallels to Anurag Basu's brand of whimsicality, while some might even note echoes of Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where an ordinary man daydreams about his extraordinary ‘heroic’ conquests. Our protagonist here, Greg Wittle (Wilson) is told about a similar alternate reality under slightly more grim circumstances. Wittle's introductory scene, in a call-centre called "Technical Difficulties", is wonderfully staged. Even though the office sounds busy, Wittle's cabin is a sea of calmness, where even a phone ring sounds like an intrusion. Cocooned in his cabin, dreaming up meticulously detailed drawings of a 'peninsula' and a dream house, we're smartly fed nuggets of information about Wittle's apparent mid-life crisis. The more he tries to perfect the nuances in his pencil sketches, the more unnerving is the cacophony outside. We learn about his recent divorce, his dependence on prescription drugs, his fractured relationship with his (about to graduate) daughter and his seemingly dull and toxic workplace shot with a deliberate hue of grey. Wittle seems a little distracted and off-centre from the very first frame, but we assume that to be Owen Wilson's nervous screen presence as an actor. It's therefore a great piece of casting, which allows us to give the benefit of the doubt to the character.
Shortly after this exquisite introductory scene, Wittle is summoned to his boss's cabin. He's told that he has been fired, so he understandably hits the bar and meets a mysterious stranger called Isabel (Hayek). Isabel tells him that the world they're living in, isn't "real". They instantly bond for being the only 'real' people in a world full of autobots and human beings shackled by unwritten rules. She shares a yellow crystal with him that gives him 'powers'. At this point, Cahill's film announces its intentions of being an allegory on addiction, and an addict's search for a safe place (their “bliss”) in this big, bad world. Through Wittle's daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), we see the endless patience and understanding that families have to exhibit, to help their loved ones recover. However, Cahill takes unnecessary detours before getting to the final (arguable) ‘point’ of the film.
Salma Hayek's casting as Isabel, is one of the unfortunate decisions of the film. Hayek's painful dialogue delivery, much like Sofia Vergara, never quite lets the viewer become fully engulfed by the illusion of her character. And for a movie that's trying to convince you about the 'reality' of one's drug-induced illusions, regularly snapping out of a scene means the viewer's investment in the film also keeps dwindling. And it's a shame, because Wilson seems particularly invested as a 40-something man coping with his addiction. Wilson brings his usual wide-eyed gratitude to the film, which allows us to see how much Wittle wants his drug-induced hallucinations to be 'real', lending integrity to a film trying to understand an addict's head-space, while they search for their next hit. But as the circumstances become more bizarre, we never really feel the desperation of our two principal characters, whose addictions are buried under several layers of a 'fantasy' adventure.
Wilson's filmography, which comprises choices like Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, where he played the role of a man who routinely makes his way to the 1920s, means that Wittle's illusions remain ambiguous for the viewers. Are we supposed to escape from the Matrix or seek refuge in it? This question seems to be at the heart of Mike Cahill's film. Wilson's performance is fascinatingly understated in the big moments, but he also doesn't leave behind his signature tics. It's beautiful how most Wilson's characters are filled with the most inane trivia that he (sincerely) chooses to lay on the other characters of the film, being unceremoniously cut-off by most of them (including Hayek in this film).
Mike Cahill, who has previously explored themes like guilt and regret in his films like Another Earth and I Origins, is in familiar, overwrought territory here. But while the earlier films saw Cahill in relative control of his grand ambitions (in spite of the polarising reviews), he gets tripped by his own world-building in Bliss. Somewhere in here, there's a remarkable film about an absent father trying to make good with a daughter who never loses faith. Unfortunately, that film is submerged by Cahill's distracted approach to make the film 'palatable'.
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