A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the sci-fi drama Bliss deals with drug addiction in a way that's both explicit and confusing. The main character, Greg, appears addicted to painkillers, but quickly finds himself taking drugs in the form of "crystals" that he believes give him superpowers and transport him to an imagined paradise. He begins living with a homeless woman, Isabel, despite his grown daughter attempting to bring him back into her life. In one world, Greg and Isabel are accomplished doctors living in a chalet with ocean views. In the other, they live in a homeless encampment, Isabel apparently sidelines as a prostitute (a man asks her for a "BJ and a finger in the butt"), and they use their "powers" to hurt people by tossing them out windows, knocking them down, or crushing their cars. Beyond the crystals Greg and Isabel take, there's also alcohol consumption and references to heroin on the city streets. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "bulls--t," "ass," "a--hole," "hell," "boner," "bitch," "douchebag," and "screwing." Isabel shoots a man. Greg tells her to kill him by crushing his skull with a rock.
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What's the story?
The recently-divorced Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson) works a thankless job at a call center named Technical Difficulties at the start of BLISS. Even so, he's not doing good work, apparently hooked on prescription drugs and ignoring calls while daydreaming and doodling. When he accidentally injures his boss right after being fired, he escapes to a dive bar across the street to plot his next moves. There, he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), a homeless woman who convinces him she has magical powers. The two begin to take a drug in the form of "crystals" to maintain their powers and eventually be transported to the "real" world, an idyllic paradise that contrasts sharply with their homeless encampment in a crime-ridden urban area. In that paradise setting, Isabel and Greg are both doctors conducting high-stakes scientific research into "brainboxes" that transport people to a simulated world. As Greg's grown daughter Emily keeps trying to track him down and bring him back to her, she adds to his confusion about what's real and what's fake.
Is it any good?
The problem with this film is that it's hard to believe any of it. You could argue that Bliss is intentionally confusing so as to reflect the disorientation of its main character, but that doesn't make for a compelling 103-minute watch. As an allegory for drug addiction, there's a lot of material here that a less-convoluted exposition could have explored more genuinely. The idea that we can only appreciate the good in our lives or on our planet when we experience its opposite, in this case a blue-tinged and drug- and crime-addled urban cityscape, is also interesting, but the film's social, political, and climate messages never quite congeal inside the sci-fi constructions of simulated worlds, fake generated people, synthetic biology, and asteroid mining. This, even despite cameos from trustworthy experts like Bill Nye the Science Guy and philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
Unfortunately, the characters are also unconvincing: Hayek and Wilson are both accomplished actors, but neither feels right for their roles here. Greg comes across as too trusting and witless, and the speed with which his relationship with the manipulative Isabel takes off is dizzying. Wilson also has a way of speaking that sounds sarcastic even when what he's saying isn't, and it throws some dialogues off. Hayek's embodiment of Isabel is also a bit off, a potentially deliberate but unappealing performance. The one character and storyline that does ring true is Emily. The idea that she manages to squeeze through a crack between Greg's real and imaginary worlds, entirely out of love for him and a refusal to give up trying to get her dad back, gives the film a single compelling storyline to grab onto. The script smartly ends with their reunion shortly after an emotional rehab scene played powerfully by Wilson.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the idea of simulated realities put forward in Bliss. Do you think there are people who believe their world is an illusion? What would that be like?
Emily spares no effort in trying to save her father, but her brother has given up on him. Why do you think they have such different feelings about their dad?
What messages do you think the filmmakers intended to get across about pollution and inequality in our contemporary world?
Are there consequences for using drugs in the movie? What would be the real-life consequences for taking drugs? Do you think the movie glamorizes drug use? Why or why not?
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