Science fiction romance Bliss tackles heady themes through a reality warping scope. Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek play strange lovers in a world that may or may not exist. Their mind-bending relationship twists and turns around a central mystery. Are they real people in an elaborate illusion? Or just facades of a troubled existence struggling to cope with difficult truths? The answer becomes obvious rather early, but the protagonist's journey to understanding is a worthwhile endeavor.
Owen Wilson stars as Greg Wittle. He sits in his drab office while the sea of cubicles outside buzzes with ringing phones. Greg draws pictures on his desk of an alluring woman and scenic seaside home. He ignores calls from his coworker and boss, but does pick up for his daughter. Emily (Nesta Cooper) would like him to attend her graduation. He's not sure if his ex-wife or son, Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), wants him there. Emily is desperate to see her father again.
Greg races to the bar across the street after a harrowing encounter with his manager. As he chugs whiskey, the bohemian-looking Isabel (Salma Hayek), calls him to her table. She knows what he's running from. Even more bizarrely, Isabel claims that they are "real", but everything else around them is not. She then takes a substance that seemingly allows her to manipulate events in the bar. When Greg follows her back to a ramshackle dwelling under a bridge on skid row, he realizes that Isabel is the woman in his drawings.
Writer/director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, The Magicians) explores the idea of "bliss" from different perspectives. Is ignorance bliss? Greg and Isabel are seen as homeless vagrants, taking unknown drugs, and engaging in petty criminal activities. They have become afterthoughts; merely surviving, but completely unbeholden to societal rules. They are also seen as glamorous sophisticates in a life with incredible technology. All of humanity's hardships have been erased, but can anyone be truly happy if that is all they know?
This Amazon Prime original reveals its true purpose with straightforward clues in the first act. Emily's search for her father reframes the entire narrative. The philosophical, Matrix-esque plotting, has a much more grounded context. Normally I would be bored after figuring out the mystery. Waiting for a character to arrive at a known conclusion can cripple a film's pacing. The difference here is that the audience wants Greg Wittle to reach that point. The pursuit of bliss, or any unbridled escapism, usually points to serious personal problems. Mike Cahill's message is heartfelt and honest in the final scene.
Bliss gets a better than average grade for creative storytelling and performances. The film bites off more than it can chew at times, but gets back on track to a thoughtful ending. Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek work well together across very different scenarios. Their turn as a homeless couple is especially convincing. Living on the streets is not a choice any rational person would make. Bliss is a production of Endgame Entertainment, Big Indie Pictures, and Pakt Media. Amazon Studios will release Bliss through its Prime Video streaming service on February 5th.