It’s easy to understand why Greg would seek another existence. He’s a middle manager in the “Technical Difficulties” department, an office bathed in harsh fluorescent light and filled with employees who only know how to trill “I’m sorry!” He has a ruined marriage, no home, no social stimulation, and little else that might anchor him to this mortal coil. What does bring joy to Greg (a miscast Owen Wilson) are the pictures he can’t stop drawing, with lush landscapes that portray a home and a woman he doesn’t recognize but that he feels are real. What if, Mike Cahill’s “Bliss” supposes, those things are real and all this trauma is a simulation created to make “real” Greg appreciate his life even more?
Writer-director Cahill has long been obsessed with stories that explore the line between what’s real and what’s not, yet “Bliss” contains none of the sparks — emotional or intellectual — that made Cahill’s previous features, if not successful, at least interesting to watch. “Another Earth” was about good people laboring under extreme circumstances, while “I Origins” was about curious people attempting to untangle deep mysteries. Greg and his eventual partner in exploration, Isabel (Salma Hayek, also miscast), are neither good nor curious. Worse, the concepts they explore are often both silly and insulting.
“It’s starting to feel like you’re making this up as you go along,” Greg tells Isabel late in the film, a comment that may well be Cahill talking to himself. There are a handful of compelling ideas at play in the film — it’s got a pro-science bent, and a real affection for human creativity — but most are buried in head-scratching plot points. A few themes recur in heavy-handed ways, like the signs for a drug rehab that pop up whenever Greg and Isabel consume illicit substances (which is to say, often).
It makes sense at the start: Greg is beaten down by both apparent depression and medication that only flattens him further. Nothing rouses him from his stupor, including his daughter (Nesta Cooper, the only performer who seems comfortable in the film) earnestly making requests of his time, or his boss wanting to see him now. Things grow exponentially worse when he’s fired from his dead-end job, care of a bizarre sequence that sets up still more issues for Greg while also removing any sense of his humanity. (Later, Greg will ask Isabel to bash his skull in with a rock, easily the film’s most relatable moment.)
Thrust deeper into an unfeeling world, Greg comes upon Isabel at a local dive bar. She just so happens to look like the lady from his drawings, though her heavy makeup and terrifying vibe keeps him from recognizing her. Isabel sounds like a crazy person, or at least the movie version of a crazy person. Lacking in any sense of personal space, she’s prone to spouting things like “you deflected my powers” as she attempts to move things with flailing hands. Soon, she — and the magical yellow crystals she loves to imbibe — ensnare Greg and convinces him that none of this is real, except for them, so screw it.
“Bliss” bravely asks the question: What if the worst people you knew didn’t believe morals, values, laws, and most other people existed? Using the world’s very real income inequality, raging protests, and rejection of science as the film’s backdrop, Cahill asks us to sympathize with two unwell characters who believe they are tourists within marginalized communities — the unhoused, the mentally ill, the drug addicted. They can move through human pain (it’s not real!) in order to get to a mythical, magical space unavailable to the rest of the trash humanity (who are also, not real!) that only exist inside a simulation. They just need to swallow more crazy crystals to get there.
Isabel’s belief that “this isn’t real” and “everyone else is fake” and “we know each other in another existence” covers all manner of sins as she and Greg gleefully tramp about on the world’s worst first date (their big joy: using their “powers” to knock over people at a rollerskating rink). Weeks pass, the crystals run out, the rehab signs keep popping up, and Greg’s sweet daughter Emily keeps trying her damnedest to pull her dad back from the brink.
Isabel has her hooks in Greg, and when she announces that they can travel to their “real,” blissful lives — again, via crystal consumption — he goes for it. Under their influence, Greg is overjoyed to discover the world he’s been drawing for so long. Some things still endure, from lime Gatorade to cloud computing, but as Isabel tells him, they are only the product of hard-won work and human perseverance.
An hour in, “Bliss” attempts an actual theme: People can only appreciate the good things in life (like this lime Gatorade-laden world) if they endure graphic simulations rooted in everything terrible. Granted, Isabel and Greg are clearly drug addicts, but the idea that the world’s suffering is only there to serve their own enlightenment may rank as one of the most galling displays of narcissism in cinema. If nothing else, their trip to the “real” world allows for a quick injection of better lighting (things are much sunnier here) and for Isabel, apparently a pioneering doctor in this existence, to yell things about her simulation creation like “Access to the Brain Box, it’s a human right!” and “We have to go back into the Brain Box, Greg!”
Cahill attempts to tie it all into a tidy and fantastically unearned little bow, using more material that feels shoved in at the last possible moment, still made up as it goes along. Even the worst simulation would have more clarity than this. Life might be messy and weird and scary, but it possesses more honesty than this cinematic misery.
“Bliss” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting on Friday, February 5.