When we first meet Morris Bliss (Michael C. Hall), he’s in his bed enjoying some post-coital time with Stephanie (Brie Larson), a much younger high-school student. It’s late in the afternoon and Morris is eager to usher Stephanie out of the house before his father Danny (Peter Fonda) comes home, but the attractive Stephanie knows that she wields the upper hand in the sexual dynamic and drags things out, peppering her middle aged lover with questions. We learn that he dreams of traveling to the places he’s read about in books, with his destinations already pinned on a map. And through their banter, Morris is shocked to learn that Stephanie is actually the daughter of a former classmate. Now while ordinarily that might seem like a big deal, as we soon learn in “The Trouble With Bliss,” Morris’ “troubles” just really aren’t all that serious.
Based on the novel by Douglas Light and written and directed by Michael Knowles, “The Trouble With Bliss” maintains the breezy tone of the opening, but it never quite clicks with the narrative that begs for a much more urgent pace. Taking place over a few days, it takes nearly two-thirds of the running time before we’re introduced fully to the too-large ensemble of increasingly zany characters that Morris has to deal with, all on his journey to lift himself out of his unemployed, living-at-home funk. There’s Andrea (Lucy Liu), his sexy neighbor whose invitation to a salsa tasting focus group (quirk alert!) clearly has ulterior motivations; Steve aka “Jetski” (Brad William Henke), Stephanie’s father, who is a foreman at a construction site where Hattie (Sarah Shahi) is squatting (leading to another diversionary subplot that goes nowhere). And let’s not forget NJ (Chris Messina), Morris’ best friend whose loyalty is only matched by the tallness of the tales he tells.
While the film aims at creating an almost screwball tale for Morris to navigate, none of the plot strands carry much weight, and ultimately, it’s hard to sympathize with Bliss’ supposed trouble. Part of this is because we are given virtually no backstory on Morris, other than that his mother died when he was young and he’s tremendously well-read. But for a 35 year-old man, living in New York City, with no job and no money, the fact that he’s able to bed a sexually agressive high-school student while being used by Andrea to make her boyfriend jealous is no mean feat. Most guys that age with a job and prospects would kill for that kind of action. And it’s not as if he’s a slick player. The mumbly Morris dresses in clothes that look like they are a size too big and pulled off the thrift store rack; yet both Stephanie and Andrea come on to him.
As for the plot elements? Again, nothing much is really at stake. The only reason Morris fears Jetski finding out he’s been sleeping with his daughter, is that the much larger man might physically harm him. In terms of their relationship, they are acquaintances at best, and when they first cross paths in the film, they haven’t seen each other in years. Meanwhile, NJ brings little to the story except some added eccentricity, while Morris’ biggest issue with his father (besides still living at home) seems to be remembering to pick up the groceries. It comes as something of a surprise that Morris finds some kind of enlightment or ambition at the end of the film, because we’re not quite sure what exactly he’s learned, to give him the courage to shake off the routine he’s established. But it’s about par for a movie where characters make decisions and embark on adventures with little in the way of reason.
It’s a shame “The Trouble With Bliss” doesn’t add up, because it has a solid cast to work with. Michael C. Hall takes a nice break from playing the murderous lead in “Dexter,” to do a complete 180, portraying a man who holds almost no secrets and has no compelling desire to do, well, anything. But neither does the script, and it leaves Hall adrift. Meanwhile, we can’t remember the last time Lucy Liu was this fresh or engaging, but her role is also largely superfluous. Oddly, the opposite is true of Stephanie, who is almost a second lead in the film, and juggling an upcoming prom, an older “boyfriend,” burgeoning sexuality and the end of high school….it’s all the ingredients for a movie we would’ve wanted to watch instead, especially with the magnetic Brie Larson leading. And we’re not quite sure what drew Peter Fonda to the film except for the idea of getting a paycheck for doing nothing more than sitting in a recliner for most of the movie.
“The Trouble With Bliss” offers little to hang on to, and as result, it floats by with little to pull you in. With almost zero stakes at risk on a personal or emotional level, it’s hard to sympathize with Morris’ plight, particularly when it seems to be created simply by his own lack of initiative. He eventually sees through his own selfishness, but having to endure it for ninety minutes is hardly bliss. [C]