After his feature debut, Another Earth and follow-up, I-Origins, writer-director Mike Cahill struggled for a high-concept title for his third feature, apologetically named Bliss.
It tells the story of a newly divorced middle-ranking executive, Greg Wittle (an apologetic Owen Wilson) who fails to re-order his meds, loses his job, kills his boss and meets a stranger in a bar in rapid succession. Greg is summoned to the table of Isabel (Salma Hayek with sorry-looking hair extensions) who tells him that everyone in the bar, except her boyfriend in the men’s room, isn’t real. To prove her point, she waves her finger and accidents happen.
At no point does Greg think of her as a witch after she pulls a Bewitched-style stunt because frankly he doesn’t have the imagination for it. He is a distracted kind of guy, drawing pictures at work of a harbour and his dream house. He doesn’t want any of his colleagues at Technical Difficulties, the call-centre where he has his own office, to see. However, his boss, Bjorn Pederson (Steve Zissus), who has a sign on his desk saying, ‘I am the boss’ – just in case anyone doubted it – knows. ‘We’re being murdered by the autobots and the Indians,’ he explains before relieving Greg of his employment. After staring incredulously as only Owen Wilson can, Greg accidentally causes Bjorn to crack his skull against his desk, Greg then hangs his ex-boss up by the window and hides him behind a curtain. In the bar looking up at the window of Bjorn’s office, Greg has pangs of guilt.
‘Fetch my necklace from my ex-boyfriend and I’ll make your problem go away,’ Isabel tells him. Greg finds the ex-boyfriend slumped in a restroom, surprisingly incapacitated, making his task easy. Isabel then makes Bjorn’s window open and Bjorn falls to his death in a suicide-like gesture. Greg rushes into the street to express his amazement – again – and then accepts Isabel’s invitation to lay low for a couple of days until an investigation into Bjorn’s death is concluded. He has left his wallet in the bar but doesn’t go back for it, having been convinced by Isabel not to do so.
Why does Greg allow his phone to be sold for thirty dollars and hang out with a woman who lives under the freeway? We twig early on that Greg had drawn her – well, he had drawn Salma Hayek circa Frida. Maybe they are connected. Isabel’s caravan has electricity. She can light candles by pointing from a distance. Having ingested a yellow crystal, Greg can do it too. The television news announces a conclusion to the investigation – unrealistically quickly – but Greg decides to hang out with Isabel, who has a large pot plant that she kisses, and has cooked stew.
There is a subplot involving Greg’s daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper) who wants him to come to her graduation. Greg also has a son, Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr) who is estranged from his dad. Arthur is fed up with Greg complaining that he has back ache, a bad knee and an injured shoulder. I’m not surprised that he thinks his dad is making excuses. Greg has an office job; he doesn’t play pro-football.
Isabel is like a Latina temptress telling Greg that his daughter isn’t real. She takes Greg roller-skating and shows off her power in a sequence where she and Greg cause a series of accidents to a number of pests as well as to a lady with a walking frame who gives her a despising look. ‘They are FGPs – Fake Generated People,’ Isabel insists before they knock over the entire rink. This sequence is meant to be funny, but it plays as cruel and shocking. It ends though with a flair moment: Greg and Isabel on a street corner looking at the police entering the rink from a distance. They watch people being arrested but when Greg looks closer, he sees himself in the back of the police car.
The film is frankly bonkers – and not in a good way. It won’t surprise you to learn that there is another set of crystals – emergency blue ones – that take Greg and Isabel to an alternate reality where they are both scientists. Greg is the inventor of a Thought Visualiser (‘tell it you’re in a pickle’) while Isabel created the ugly world full of FGPs.
There are plenty of films that deal with alternate realities, but Cahill has something else on his mind – people who don’t see others. As Emily searches for her father – he has missed her graduation by this point – there is a notice on a wall about the 1%. It is the 1% of America’s population – the rich – who don’t see others. They live in a reality where poverty and the suffering of the 99% is abstract, not existing on their plane. In the beautiful world that Greg has returned to, he wanders the harbour of his imagination, insisting that Isabel buy olive oil. ‘We have plenty of olive oil at home,’ she replies.
We ask ourselves: is Isabel’s world real or is Greg’s? But Cahill isn’t interested in that. In the chaotic climax, the two worlds merge, the 99% literally crashing the 1%’s party. There is a second flourish – a tracking shot of Greg running. Owen Wilson is in surprisingly good shape. The original shot was four-and-a-half minutes long – think Michael Fassbender powering through the streets of New York in Shame. Cahill fortunately spares us the point at which it would become tedious.
Bliss is unmistakably less of the sum of its parts. It has all the tone and incident of a comedy with none of the laughs. Wilson and Hayek make an odd couple, each encumbered with bad hair decisions. At the start, Wilson’s hair seems glued to his skull. He has a parting – when did he ever have one of those in a movie? Only part way through does it achieve signature mop status. Hayek on the other hand in the ‘ugly’ world has surplus hair, a wig attached to her natural tresses, though you can see both layers. I suppose it is some form of disguise; it is supposed to go with ‘living off the grid’, an expression I thought was redundant. (Personally, I prefer the explanation in Nomadland: ‘I’m not homeless, I’m house-less’.)
There is something ironic about Bliss being released by Amazon Prime, a company owned by one of America’s richest men, Jeff Bezos, who has a net worth of $185.7 billion. The company head is one of the 1% that Cahill appears to be criticising, a guy who believes in his own reality. Maybe the film was purchased as a magnanimous gesture. Then again, Cahill is hardly threatening the mainstream: it is hard to imagine the audience for this movie.
Well, perhaps not. Three scenes take place in or around restrooms, including at the roller-rink – a love scene is intercut with Isabel and Greg knocking people over. After Greg accidentally kills his boss, he tries to escape into a restroom, though it is occupied. Perhaps Cahill is appealing to distracted men who do their best thinking on the john.
Fundamentally, Bliss tells a much simpler story that invites decoding. There’s the improbable fantasy narrative that we watch and then there is the tale of a man who needs help and ends up at Safe Harbour. The billionaire and the chemically-dependant have something in common in the way they don’t see reality. Billionaires have country clubs. The chemically dependent come together ‘anonymously’ in an attempt to deal with their trauma.
Bliss is available to stream on Amazon Prime from Friday 5 February 2021