Every now and again a film comes out that shouldn’t work. Its pacing is off, it’s not particularly nuanced in its discussion or theme, and tries really hard to do something interesting. But for some reason, every piece that you would critique in another film sings and you’re not sure why. That’s Amazon Studio’s latest Original Bliss.
Written and directed by Mike Cahill, and starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek as its leads Joel and Isabel, Bliss pushes its concepts and offers a story that just hits me in my own mental health journey. Bliss is a mind-bending love story following Greg who, after recently being divorced and then fired, meets the mysterious Isabel (Salma Hayek), a woman living on the streets and convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is nothing but a computer simulation. Doubtful at first, Greg eventually discovers there may be some truth to Isabel’s wild conspiracy as he falls into her world.
At that start, Bliss a couple of things clear about Greg: He needed his job, he loves his kids, and he’s out of refills on his medication. These three elements are woven into every choice of the film and while the trailer makes it seem like a Matrix-esque love story, the reality of the film is much different. At its core, Bliss is a story about mental illness and the way changes in life can throw you into a tailspin.
Summarizing Bliss isn’t easy, especially when trying to avoid spoilers. But to write a review, some critical elements of the film have to be touched on. Through a science fiction narrative, we see Isabel and Greg fall in love. A manic pixie dream girl of selfish sorts, Isabel changes Greg from the straight-laced office worker to a man living on the streets and shunning a world he was taught was fake. For Isabel, the world around her is a simulation, one that is filled with NPCs that can be manipulated at will with a twist of a hand. But, there are a few people scattered throughout the world that are real. Greg is one of them.
The two form a bond through sex and drug use and a free spirit that can only be found in a simulation. But slowly, Cahill introduces elements to the story that begin to make the foundation of Greg and Isabel’s relationship buckle. We see Greg’s children, we see small moments that he should be able to correct with his powers but can’t, and we see him fall deeper, revealing the cracks in the story he believes.
There is a catharsis in Bliss, about letting the ones you love help you, about choosing to care for yourself even when the reality is worse than what your mind is creating. The film also showcases how mental health and homelessness go hand in hand – even if isn’t the deepest of dives on the topic. There is a lot of exploration of hard-hitting themes that I questioned. As Isabel, Hayek plays the typical manic pixie dreamgirl but spun into a hypersexualized version of the trope – which is frustrating given the fact that she is Latina. But at the same time, the last third of the film presents her as more than that, as a figure with power and intelligence that is beyond what she began as. And Hayek’s performance sells both sides.
As for Wilson, Greg is highly relatable. For me at least. There is a somber downturn in every single one of his scenes, even when he’s happy. There is a fear, a crack showing that even he may not buy what he’s participating in. It’s Wilson’s acting as Greg that unsettles and brings the viewer to question the world. Throughout the film, the trio of things we learn about Greg holds true: he needed his job, he loves his kids, he’s out of refills on his meds. It’s a trifecta that makes for a traumatic culmination of events that guide the movie through its generic sci-fi and into its emotional conclusion.
Bliss doesn’t have any phenomenal parts to it. In fact, I can’t really explain why the large generalization and high-level commentary hit me emotionally. For other films, I can point to a scene, a moment, something concrete to explain why a film moves me. But with Bliss, it’s the sadness hiding beneath the fantasy. It’s the loneliness peaking out from behind the love. It’s the fact that Greg isn’t escaping anything, he just isn’t aware of it, through no fault of his own, but because of his lack of access to healthcare. While I can’t go deeper without spoiling the film’s finale, it’s the large sweeping emotions baked into the film that makes me feel Bliss in my core. And in all the sadness and fear and regret there is a piece of hope. One that can grow when it’s nurtured, when you let the people who love you in.
Since the credits, I’ve been trying to figure out why Bliss hit me the way it did – even with a trope that I’m not a fan of at the center. But After a second watch, I realized that it hit and works because of what its calling people to do. If you see people struggling, reach out to them, even if it feels like they’re in another world. But more importantly, if you’re struggling, even if you don’t know it, take the hand that reaches out to you. The film is about empathy and more importantly not letting it fall to the wayside – and more importantly, letting help in.
Overall, Bliss is going to be hit or miss for audiences and doesn’t exactly execute what the trailer promises. But, the film is one that will land with those who can feel the emotions laying under its surface. It’ll work for those who can see beneath the science fiction. There is something grander in the film that I’m not entirely sure I’ve experienced fully, but its heart does shine through.
Bliss is available exclusively on Amazon Prime starting February 5, 2021.
Overall, Bliss is going to be hit or miss for audiences and doesn’t exactly execute what the trailer promises. But, the film is one that will land with those who can feel the emotions laying under its surface. It’ll work for those who can see beneath the science fiction. There is something grander in the film that I’m not entirely sure I’ve experienced fully, but it’s heart does shine through.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.