Director: Mike Cahill
Screenwriter: Mike Cahill
Starring: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.
During the 2000s, the pseudo-independent film studios of the time bought up high concept festival films like never before, and as a result the sci-fi-leaning dramas that kept audiences engaged almost exclusively through mysterious and often flabbergasting plot developments (that were intended to very slowly unravel the mystery behind the story afoot) were thrust into the public eye. Some of the best and most memorable of the era were Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s outstanding mind-bending debut, and the Charlie Kaufman penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These films, and a batch of similarly as concept-driven pieces including Oscar Best Picture winner Crash, seemed to flood the exhibition space beneath the blockbuster franchise entries from Pirates of the Caribbean and Spider-Man, creatives of the time (as well as studios like Fox Searchlight and Miramax) seemingly inspired by the late 90s critical and commercial success of American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ era-defining classic built around the mystery of who murdered its protagonist. 2021 Amazon Studios film Bliss, from Another Earth filmmaker Mike Cahill, is one such film; a throwback to an era of mind-widening but often frustrating cinema, an almost parodically high concept presented in this case without confidence or sophistication. If 2003’s The United States of Leland was a shallower version of American Beauty and 2017’s The Discovery a shallower version of Eternal Sunshine, then 2021’s Bliss is a shallower version of all of the above plus The Matrix, only with the colour palette of a dreary suburban drama of decades past and dialogue that could be better imagined by your local improv class.
Thematically, Bliss falls into a lot of the same traps as films of the 90s hangover released earlier this century, centring its narrative around a man (Greg Wittle – played by Owen Wilson) unhappy with his middle class lifestyle and his daily management of a doomed marriage and corporate oppression within the workplace. Here, as is the case with many a late 90s film – Titanic, Office Space and American Beauty chief amongst them – it takes a brief encounter with falling down the class totem poll for him to “find himself”, Bliss combining this formula with an allegory for drug addiction as Greg embraces a homeless lifestyle away from the capitalist constructs that at one time burdened him. Through this representation of addiction, Bliss integrates its sci-fi concept which suggests that Greg is in just one of many layers of virtual existence, “pearls” of various colours being his way in and out of each, the beautiful yet enigmatic Isabel (Salma Hayek) – a woman who claims to be Greg’s lover from another life – his oracle. As Greg tumbles down the rabbit hole, we see his struggle for what it really is through the eyes of his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper), though with her existence questionable and Mike Cahill unwilling to have his protagonist suitably challenge anything that is told to him, Bliss at all levels quickly unravels from being an interesting premise into something that demands you engage with it just as little as the protagonist does.
Perhaps a lot was lost between the finished screenplay and the final edit, the attachment of leading talents Owen Wilson – who is particularly impressive in his early scenes as the anxiety-riddled lead – and Salma Hayek seeming to suggest that the intention of the piece was better realised on the page, but if that is the case it is incredibly difficult to see how this could have all gone so wrong.
In the late 90s or even the early 2000s, Cahill may have been forgiven for presenting such a dalliance with poverty and drug addiction, a less aware middle class comfortable in (or at least around) a period of relative affluence, but in the early 2020s – in the midst of a second “once in a lifetime” economic recession and with the middle class dissolved into an upper working class and replaced by a new class of richest people in history – the idea of using the experiences of the least powerful in society as a narrative device for a middle class white male is not only an outdated one but a sightless and inconsiderate one; only the blinkers of a filmmaker massively removed from the realities of so many people’s everyday lives could produce such a negligent representation of current events.
And yet current events are shoe-horned in, as if elements produced at the whim of an agent or producers looking to stimulate a sales package for the script and/or film. Greg’s on-screen confidante and prospective lover Isabel (Salma Hayek) makes mention of world-ending poverty, environmental disasters and so on as the couple take in lavish surroundings in a dreamscape found in a different layer of the realities they are presented with, and the film toys with the ideas of riots from afar (though about what we are never sure), the insight into the how and why of any of the film’s events as inconsequential as the hero’s experiences with poverty, addiction and/or mental illness. Nothing in Bliss matters, not even our own idea of which reality is real and which is not, which is a major problem for a narrative that is for all intents and purposes about the filmmaking process of experiencing life in other people’s shoes and then communicating that through trickery and manipulation. Cahill’s work suffers from a far less sophisticated and less exciting version of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet-problem – that being an insistence upon having us experience a mind-bending narrative as opposed to having us engage with it – and the result, when tied to bland visuals and meme-worthy dialogue, is poor.
In Bliss, people around Greg don’t matter – not even Greg’s daughter – and as protesters are dismissed out of hand, homeless people represented as cheery and content in their tents by the river, murder victims shrugged off as “not real”, and a haven landscape described as the result of the world’s resources being brought into check by mass human extinction, there is a darkness to Cahill’s work that is difficult to distinguish as being a purposeful narrative element intent on commentating on our current way of life, an incredible oversight or the ideological undertaking of a Randian individualist.
With no clear answers to present ideologically or even narratively, Bliss is easily forgettable in spite of its star power and early promise. Where The Matrix asked whether we would take the red or the blue pill – the harsh realities of the world or vast comforts of virtual reality our destinations – this Mike Cahill film asks if we’ll take gold or green pearls, but forgets to give us a reason to consider taking even one of them. Consistent only in how inconsistent it is, and thought-provoking only in how messy it is, Bliss is an instantly forgettable and wholly unoriginal film, the likes of which we thought had been outdated by 2006.