"I'm a little disoriented, but in a good way," Owen Wilson says about halfway through "Bliss." While audience members are likely to agree with him on the first part of that sentence, the second part is debatable.
Wilson's Greg is fired from his job and his family is in disarray. Drowning his sorrows in a bar, he meets free-spirited Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek), who tells him the real world is not, in fact, real. It's a fantasy we've collectively decided to believe in and the real real world may be the beaches and dream home that he idly sketches when he has time to kill.
I love the idea of Hayek as a sort of guardian angel/magician. From the beginning of her career she has had a confidence that reads as otherworldly, and her warmth and intelligence seem to emanate from someone who's a positive force. Writer/director Mike Cahill takes advantage of those qualities in "Bliss" but also introduces an element of mystery: Is Isabel actually looking out for Greg or are some of her strange activities, such as slipping drugs into his drinks and convincing him to run shadowy errands, evidence that she's a huckster who spouts mumbo-jumbo to hide the fact that she's up to no good?
That question might resonate more if someone else were cast as Greg. Wilson projects a droll vulnerability, but in almost all of his movies, it would be easy to believe that he's the huckster who's up to no good. That's an issue in "Bliss" because we're supposed to be on his side here and I was never sure I was.
This is probably a good point to acknowledge that I'm not a big fan of the kind of mind games Cahill wants to play in "Bliss" and in his previous features "I Origins" and "Another Earth," all of which use mysticism and surreal visions to suggest that our world is not what it seems.
OK, maybe — I mean, I have a healing candle or two and I've read Carlos Castaneda — but something about the fact that movies are already presenting us with a fully realized alternate reality makes them feel like the wrong medium in which to say that both the reality we're living in and the one on-screen are fake.
Long story short: "Bliss" gave me a "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"-sized headache. It's a visually striking movie, particularly in how it differentiates between the three different worlds it shows us, but it's also often silly. Cahill's script, for instance, wants us to care about the family Greg would leave behind if he lands in another reality, but it keeps forgetting about them. And when Greg is given a "thought visualizer" to help him see his deepest desires, it's hard to take the thing seriously when it sounds exactly like dialing into an internet connection in 1998.
"Bliss" has compelling arguments about making priorities and recognizing that the things we don't know may be more important than the things we do, but it's fairly humorless and it often uses its woo-woo mysticism as an excuse to be vague.
In the end, I still felt disoriented. And not in a good way.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for language, drug use and violence.