Movie Review: Salma lures Owen into The Matrix in misguided “Bliss”

About fifteen minutes into “Bliss,” after we’ve been introduced to a lonely, newly-divorced and newly-drug-addicted office drone (Owen Wilson) falling under the spell of this bewitching off-the-grid woman (Salma Hayek), stay on your guard for the same resignation that swept over me.

As Hayek’s Isabella covers up the accidental death of Greg’s (Wilson) boss, trips waiters and roller-skaters with a flick of her wrist, and does all this with magic, hopes that this will be an edgy, free-spirit “Something Wild” transformation romantic comedy flitter away.

Any on-the-lam suspense set up by her “help” and his “guilt” in causing his just-fired-me boss to die is abandoned. Because that’s not the movie writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) wanted to make. What Cahill chose to do with a good cast and some promising ideas is this “Matrix Lite” mess.

Because Greg’s estrangement from his kids (Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the call center management job he daydreams through, sketching this imaginary paradise he’d like to move to, that isn’t “real” the exotic stranger Isabella reveals to him at a neighborhood bar.

Isabella just looks and lives like a homeless person, in an elaborate shabby chic encampment under an overpass. She’s really some sort of arbiter of Greg’s reality, because this world? She’s got it wired.

Pop a few “yellows” or “blues” — crystalized pills — and she and by extension Greg can set their world right, or at least engage in petty acts of vengeance against rude roller skaters and street thugs.

Pop enough pills, and maybe you’ll find that “Bliss” you’ve dreamed of, sketched and hoped to live in (the lovely resort coast of Croatia).

Greg wrestles with all this input, the frisson of their scrambling, messy lives on the streets of LA, the magical, effects-happy calm of the “real” world Isabella presents to him. “Which version is real?” isn’t the best question. “Which version is preferable?”

Folks already down the rabbit hole are wholly-entitled to do some vigorous head-nodding at the fact that “A Glitch in the Matrix” and “Bliss” are opening the same week.

A documentary that explores the belief and slim possibility that we’re living in a “simulation” world, not unlike that imagined in “The Matrix,” and “Bliss,” another film that toys with that idea in fictional-fantasy form, come out at the same time?

That’s some serious cinema synchronicity.

Cahill’s never fretted over accessible films. “I Origins” made a little more sense than the alternate-reality based “Another Earth.” Here, he drifts from the faintly/bizarrely interesting to the unintentionally laughable.

There’s a lot of promise in the idea that a man’s idea of bliss would include a luxe seaside life, and Salma Hayek, even if she’s purring warnings about being “sedoooced by the seeeeeemulation,” or “socked into the eeeeeluusion.”

God I love her accent.

The alternate reality, where Bill Nye the Science Guy is a sage and arbiter of what is worthwhile and provable? That’s clever.

But the interface between these stories is clumsy, the fascinating opening act passes into memory and attempts at bringing it all back together are more frustrating than fun, loopy and daft when the aim was plainly something more intellectual.

Unlike “The Matrix,” there’s too little to hang onto thanks to a flimsy story that dives into future-tech and glib heaven-or-hell discourses, and characters who keep us at arm’s length.

MPAA Rating: R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence

Cast: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Bill Nye

Credits: Scripted and directed by Mike Cahill. An Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 1:43

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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