Owen Wilson & Salma Hayek chase happiness in mind-bending mobius strip of a movie
Starring Owen Wilson & Salma Hayek
Directed by Mike Cahill
On Amazon Prime Feb. 5, 2021
It’s a state of perfect happiness, oblivious to everything else.
That’s the definition of “bliss,” but that’s hardly how you’d describe Greg (Owen Wilson) when we first meet him—divorced, recovering from some kind of injury, totally distracted from his job, doodling and daydreaming and so sideways with his boss that he’s just a couple of minutes away from being fired.
And he’s just found out his pharmacy won’t refill a prescription for the pain meds he really seems to need right now.
Then things take a real turn for the worse.
But hold on: Did any of this really happen, at least the way Greg thinks it did?
Greg starts to wonder when he ducks into a bar across the street to drown his troubles with a drink, where he meets a mysterious woman. Isabel (Salma Hayek) seems to have so truly strange powers, including the ability to “affect” physical objects and things happening around her. Don’t get so hung up and worried, she tells him; almost everything he sees is an illusion. “The world is simply light bouncing around your neurons,” she says. “It’s manufactured and malleable.”
Director Mike Cahill, who also wrote the original screenplay, has some serious sci-fi cred with a couple of previous films, Another Earth (2011) and I Origins (2014), both of which were acclaimed for how they explored weighty, existential questions grounded in human drama. As a filmmaker/auteur, he shows some of the same cerebral DNA as fellow writer/directors Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), whose plotlines tend to be tethered to meaty, multi-layered meta-concepts. In Bliss, Greg falls in love with Isabel, but it’s not a simple love story, by any means.
Isabel—who appears to be homeless, living in an encampment under an overpass—gets her powers through yellow crystals she pops like candy. She tells Greg that the sketches he’s been drawing—of his dream home, on his dream peninsula, with a beautiful dream woman—aren’t just pencil drawings of imaginary, wishful things, they’re depictions from deep within his subconsious memories. That woman in the pencil drawing, he tells him, is her.
“You’re my guy,” she says.
And the teenage daughter (Nesta Cooper) who’s been looking for Greg, asking him to come to her high school graduation… Isabel tells him that she’s not real. She’s a FGP, a “fake generated person” in a science experiment—in another dimension.
Hey, in this era of so-called fake news, why not?
And in that other dimension—which Isabel accesses though more powerful, blue crystals, inhaled through what looks like a double-barrelled nasal vaporizer—everything is wonderful. It’s blissful, the total opposite of the grungy, dirty, garbage-strewn world of the underpass. And in its sun-kissed, coastal Mediterranean paradise, where all is clean and sparkling, Greg’s drawings—his “memories” and his feelings—have come to life.
If that sounds loopy, it is. Especially when Greg and Isabel snort themselves over the barrier between the two dimensions, the two “worlds” collide, and things get all mixed-up and Matrix-y. Greg sees a bunch of brains floating in some kind of serum, in a “brain box.” A robot is fixing a meal in the kitchen. Bill Nye, the Science Guy, shmoozes him at a party; another guy, who’s actually a holograph, small-talks as he takes a break from the afterlife, reporting that hell isn’t so bad, after all.
In Bliss, in fact, nothing is so bad—because all the bad stuff is fake.
Or is it? The movie is packed with ideas about identity, memory, science, technology, reality, poverty, pollution, invention and innovation, income inequality, love and choosing what “world” we want—one that’s messy and imperfect and “ugly,” or one that’s so lovely and pristine, there’s no place for blemishes or aberrations of any kind.
Greg loves the pristine, perfect world. Who wouldn’t? He begs to stay there longer, not just for a day or two. “You can’t just give me a bite of an apple, then just take it away,” he tells Isabel. Hmmm, what well-known parable should that remind you of—a woman giving a man a bite of an apple? And what kind of trouble did that get them into?
Hayek, the Mexican-born actress who won an Oscar for Frida (2002), is an exotic enigma as Isabel. Is she a gypsy vagabond, or a celebrated, inter-dimensional-surfing, brain-wave-riding scientist? We’re never quite sure, and we’re never quite sure if Greg is, either. “I’m starting to think that you’re making this up as you go along,” he tells her at one point.
Wilson, best known for his goofy comedies (Wedding Crashers, Starsky & Hutch, Zoolander, Meet the Fockers) is impressive as a guy with some serious things going on in his noggin that may—or may not—be leading him into deeper spirials of delusion and confusion. “I have so many thoughts,” he tells his daughter, Emily, on a the phone at the beginning of the movie. “I wish you could see.”
“Are you sure you’re OK, Daddy?” she asks him.
But Emily’s not so sure, and neither are we. Is Greg schizophrenic? Alcoholic? A drug addict? Delusional? High on love? Or has he discovered a magic portal to Shangra-la? A scene in which Greg and Isabel gleefully trash a roller rink, using their crystal-fueled telekinetic powers, is like two giddy teenyboppers on a wilding spree—and then Greg “watches” himself, watching himself being hauled away by the cops.
In this mind-bending mobius strip of a movie, twisting and twitching back and forth between two worlds, one ugly and messy and one blissful and perfect, which one will Greg choose? Which one would you choose?
Bliss takes you to a happy place, all right. But happiness, like all emotions, can be fleeting. And like a lot of things, it might just be all in your head.