By Greta Chiocchetti
“I’m sorry you’re experiencing technical difficulties!” Greg Wittle’s (Owen Wilson) coworkers drone in unison, responding to a seemingly-endless barrage of dissatisfied customers’ calls to Technical Difficulties, the fluorescent-lit gray call center they inhabit. Rather than trudging through his monotonous workday, Greg spends hours in his office sketching the landscapes of a faraway, yet somehow familiar dream life: a picturesque beachfront home, a beautiful woman.
It’s easy to understand why Greg—recently divorced, estranged from his children, and living out of a motel—is so attracted to the possibility of a better, alternate reality, the basis of writer and director Mike Cahill’s newest sci-fi thriller, “Bliss.” However, the intriguing premise exploring the thin line between delusion and reality gets muddled by over-the-top twists and turns.
When his boss repeatedly calls him in for a meeting, Greg stalls by trying and failing to refill a prescription—and snorting a couple of remaining tablets on his way in. When he promptly gets fired, it comes as no surprise to viewers or to Greg. After being singled out by a mysterious homeless woman at a bar, Isabel (Salma Hayek) convinces him that he’s actually living in a computer simulation and they are the only “real” ones—everyone else, including his daughter, is a “fake generated person” in a science experiment. He readily accepts her conspiracy as truth, which, despite Cahill’s scene-setting of Greg’s bleak and imploding life, still feels farfetched. Unfortunately, the rest of the film follows the same unconvincing trajectory.
Wilson’s average Joe performance as Greg seems authentic enough, but it was Hayek’s over-the-top, frenzied energy that truly captured the mindset of Isabel, who believes that none of their actions in this “fake” reality have any real consequences. The ensuing romance between Greg and Isabel, however, seems to come out of nowhere. One moment she is an eccentrically-dressed homeless drug addict staring him down from across a bar, and the next she is his sole tether to any sort of reality—imagined or otherwise. Greg doesn’t hesitate to isolate himself from his daughter (Nesta Cooper), who spends the bulk of the film trying to rescue him from his life on the fringes of society. He instead chooses to wander through Los Angeles’ underbelly in search of the magical yellow crystals he and Isabel ingest to gain telekinetic powers. Though the allegory is relatively clear—the crystals are a stand-in for illicit substance abuse—Cahill loses himself in the film’s plot twists instead of developing a believable rationale for Greg’s descent to rock bottom.
When Greg and Isabel’s fantasy world finally materializes onscreen, it’s an effective contrast to the world of suffering they’ve been trying to escape through moments of chemically-induced bliss. Though the film has its convoluted moments, it manages to end on a strong, thoughtful note.
“Bliss” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.