Bliss–Strange romance in a twisted sci-fi… or fantasy… or something entirely different… horror story?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

In the 2017 movie Logan, three characters drawn together by circumstance form a family unit and for a brief moment over a dinner with strangers they get to experience bliss for the first, and possibly only, times of their lives.  In the climactic sequence of Amazon Studio’s original 2021 film, Bliss, the two lead characters also get to have a moment where their lives are what they always dreamed of.  Is it real or is this sci-fi or fantasy, or are we headed into some kind of twisted horror story?  That’s the question viewers will be waiting for as they take a very strange trip with Owen Wilson as a down-on-his-luck estranged father whose life collides with Salma Hayek as a vagabond conjurer of magic who lives on the streets nearby.  Fortunately the characters are endearing and sympathetic, the performances spot-on, and their story worth your two hours.

Wilson and Hayek may have given their best performances so far in Bliss.  It’s their ability to convey to the audience that they truly believe what is happening to them on the screen that will make you stay around until the end.  It’s also a triumph of writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth), who notably has a cinematography background (meaning many smartly set-up shots), to put together the kind of genre-bending story that is intriguing, darkly funny, gut-wrenchingly sad, and at times maybe even a bit hopeful… or blissful.  But it’s all that in nearly the same way that Midnight Special wasn’t quite a social drama and wasn’t quite science fiction.  The clues to what is really going on are not hidden so much as being so obvious that everything couldn’t possibly be as simple as it seems.  In the midst of the ethereal happenings to these two people, it’s more difficult to point out who may be the villain (or villains) of the story.

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As with his real-life brother Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, Behind Enemy Lines) is constantly underestimated for his ability to portray characters he digs into who earnestly believe while also being believable.  Here he plays Greg Wittle, a call center manager who has lost all interest in his job.  He’s constantly drawing sketches of his dream house, and what may be his dream woman, all instead of answering the telephone when escalations come in from his employees.  He’s also out of refills on some kind of medication, and we learn from those around him that he both over-promises (aka lies) and notoriously unreliable.  He tries to get an Rx refill as he is called into his boss’s office, who gives him his pink slip.  Greg is stunned, stunned so much he is in some kind of trance that he goes in and out of for the rest of the movie.  Did he really almost kill his boss?  Did he really hide the body behind the drapes?  Is this really a secret Quentin Tarantino movie?

While panicking in a bar across the street, Greg is approached by Salma Hayek as Isabel.  Isabel is disheveled and intense.  She claims to know Greg, and claims to know what horror he has just stumbled into.  But she promises to help Greg, so long as he helps her obtain and maintain a supply of magic blue crystals.  She’s willing to help Greg because he matters, because he is among the few people that are real.  And it turns out she can solve his most pressing problem.  It also turns out she lives in street life’s version of a condo, full of assembled junk items to everyone else, and she offers Greg a place to stay until his work-related issues blow over.  If this is a horror movie, it’s “kinda/sorta” the horror in the way of Natural Born Killers or Falling Down.

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If Greg wasn’t off his meds, he might not go along with all that Isabel is saying.  She is convinced the crystals give her special powers, which she demonstrates for Greg at a skating rink, resulting in one or more arrests.  Her construct of space and time is much like the parallel reality in The Matrix.  The world with the job and the bar and the street condo is the fake one, full of earthly horrors, and the real world, which she says she can take him to with the right counts of another type of crystal, may even be the place Greg has been sketching.  If two people can share in hope, what all can they achieve?  How much easier would it be if they had the help of others along their journey?

Despite the title, Bliss is not a romance in any traditional sense.  It is definitely a bad romance with its darker moments.  It has some commonality with the Robin Williams/Jeff Bridges movie The Fisher King (Bliss is better), especially with the theme of society giving up on people with mental and social problems.  How much of what is going on is a result of Greg not taking his medicines?  What is the backstory of Isabel?  Where did she get her gifts, who does she care about, and what is she willing to give up for the world she believes in?  The supporting performances really don’t matter much to the story, which invests nearly all it’s time on the leads, except for Nesta Cooper (Supernatural, The Returned, Heroes Reborn) as Greg’s caring daughter, and a strange appearance of Bill Nye the Science Guy as himself.

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Definitely not a feel-good movie, again despite the title and cheery poster, and not recommended for anyone dealing with mental illness.  But it will put viewers into the position of seeing how real people might end up in the circumstances of Greg and Isabel in a “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of way.  And writer-director Mike Cahill handles the story in an intelligent manner.  Watch it for the endearing performances, and to get reeled into an intriguing albeit bizarre and gritty journey.  Bliss is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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