Wilson and Hayek’s manic journey is anything but ‘Bliss’

“Bliss” – “Ignorance is bliss.” – Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), “The Matrix” (1999)

“Most people say, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’” – Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek), “Bliss” (2021)

Greg Whittle (Owen Wilson) daydreams about a different life, and why not?  He works at Technical Difficulties, a call center for customers who have….well, you know, and the office and everyone else are painted in dank, gray hues.  Greg’s workplace may not be as cheerless as Joe’s (Tom Hanks) in “Joe versus the Volcano” (1990), a factory of mindless misery, but passions throughout the cubicles run as thin as a Geo Metro’s tire tread after a year-long trek in the Canadian Rockies.

Our hero’s world becomes infinitely rockier when he accidentally causes a freakish mishap at his company and then runs into an urban gypsy named Isabel.  She claims to wield magical powers, and sure enough, before you can say “Yapple Dapple”, Isabel manipulates the space around her.  Cosmic storms don’t suddenly rain down on Los Angeles, but a flick of Isabel’s wrist causes a bar server’s tray full of glasses to swoop out of his hands and crash to the floor.  Are you not convinced that Isabel can bend physics in this Matrix-like existence?  You soon will be.  Greg is.

Writer/director Mike Cahill knows a thing or two about trippy cinema concepts, and turn to his “Another Earth” (2012) and “I Origins” (2014) as prime examples.  On this planet, Cahill’s greater Los Angeles is every bit as gloomy as Greg’s office.  Ambulance sirens, abandoned construction sites, closed-up businesses, graffiti, trash, cheap motels, and smoggy skies dominate the landscape.  The local chamber of commerce wants no part of this movie because everything around Greg and Isabel’s immediate present is anything but a paradise.

Randy Newman doesn’t love this LA.

However, Cahill offers a gateway to another place, one of bliss, that exists right where our heroes stand.  “Bliss” is a science-fiction picture, but an ugly, haphazard one to stomach.  In addition to the environmental grime and more grime, Isabel is strident, harsh, and manic.  She has a curt answer for every question and carries all the warmth and stability of the snide kids in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971).  Ugh, remember the gum-chewing girl.

Sure, she opens Greg’s eyes to this real-life Matrix and another other-worldly locale (that will not be revealed in this review), but Isabel doesn’t truly possess Morpheus’ (Laurence Fishburne) or Trinity’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) steely confidence.  Then again, Greg is no Neo (Keanu Reeves).  He twists in the wind and allows Isabel to wrap her hands around the back of his neck and drag him all across town and beyond.  Meanwhile, in slow motion – like the minute hands on a clock – this kooky couple appears to become increasingly disheveled and unkempt as the minutes drone on.  Not only is this an unhealthy relationship, but these two don’t seem very healthy either.

Cahill has a masterplan in mind, and looking back, it’s an earnest one.  Indeed, he yanks his audience through confusing double-talk, contradictions, and some blabbering – but purposeful – nonsense.  Concepts like a brain box, fake generated people, synthetic biology, asteroid mining, and a thought visualizer (which resembles as 56 inch Etch A Sketch) fly through these realities like two extended rounds of Pictionary at a modern-day “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) and “Elysium” (2013).   Many kudos to Cahill, production designer Kasra Farahani, and art director Jordan Ferrer because they offer some fascinating world-building here, but these universes are also deliberately frustrating throughout most of the movie’s 103-minute runtime.  “Bliss” is not an ignorant film, not by a longshot, but it’s certainly not a blissful experience.

⭐ 1/2  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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