“I have a picture in my head of a place. I don’t know if it’s real.” – Owen Wilson’s Greg in “Bliss.”
In the metaphysical journey that is “Bliss,” there comes a time when one almost expects Agent Smith from “The Matrix” to pop in looking for Mr. Anderson, or perhaps McCabe from “Vanilla Sky” to find our hero on a rooftop and tell him, “Mortality as home entertainment — this cannot be the future, can it?” because we are deep down the rabbit hole and constantly trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not real in this trippy and entertaining mind-bender from writer-director Mike Cahill.
You can’t help but think of “The Matrix” and “Vanilla Sky” (or its precursor, the 1997 Spanish film “Abre los ojos”) and even “The Fisher King” as this Amazon Prime Video feature starts off in the real world and then takes us on a fantastical journey in which we’re pretty sure — well, almost sure, well, maybe not entirely sure — about which universe is authentic and which exists only in the imagination.
Owen Wilson reminds us he can do so much more than play the preternaturally laidback aging hippie type with an impressively layered performance as Greg, a middle-aged, divorced father who is an executive of some sort at a large company but spends his days ignoring calls, dodging meetings and creating elaborate drawings depicting an idyllic home that looks positively … heavenly. Almost too good to be true. It’s not entirely clear how long this has been going on, but if Greg thinks he’s fooling his co-workers, he’s dead wrong — and when he’s told the big boss wants to see him, it looks like the end of the road for Greg.
Things go sideways in a big way during that meeting with the boss, and at this early point “Bliss” has the look and feel of a gritty, grounded thriller about a man unraveling, in the vein of “Falling Down.” Greg finds himself on the street and connecting with an exotically strange and seemingly unhinged woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek in a terrifically theatrical performance), who bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Greg’s sketches. How can this be? Isabel tells Greg it’s proof they’re living in a manufactured world, and nothing they see — none of the people, none of the buildings, nothing at all — is really there. It’s all part of some grand experiment, and only Greg and Isabel can see through it!
Something like that.
“You see all these people outside?” Isabel says to Greg. “They’re not real.” That sounds crazy, of course, but then Isabel starts teaching Greg some mind-blowing tricks, e.g., how to light a candle from across the room simply by pointing at it and wishing it to be so.
Nesta Cooper delivers strong work as Greg’s daughter Emily, who is about to graduate high school and is understandably worried about her father — yet even as Emily’s very existence seems to offer proof Isabel’s claims are the rantings of a madwoman, Isabel has Greg’s head spinning with her explanations of how Emily isn’t real, she’s just part of the illusion. Greg was never married and he doesn’t have children and he never worked at that company; all of those elements are simply part of the SIMS stuff.
It’s all madness — until there’s a startling revelation indicating Isabel might not be so crazy after all, and the Shangri-La envisioned by Greg in his drawings might actually be the real world. “Bliss” is a strikingly impressive visual feast, as we toggle back and forth between the stark and oppressively gray world where Greg and Isabel are two oddball characters living under a viaduct and the brightly colored and futuristic nirvana where they’re like the grown-up Homecoming Queen and King of a futuristic, advanced community where virtual reality co-mingles with reality.
“I’m a little disoriented,” Greg says at one point, and it’s the understatement of his lifetime. To the very end, we can feel Greg’s sadness when his world seems to be crumbling, his exhilaration when he believes he’s found a new and spectacularly beautiful reality, and his heartbreaking confusion when he has to choose between two worlds — a choice that might not really be his to make.