BLISS. It is a conundrum as old as ... people, I guess. Or at least dating back to the period when people had enough time to focus on something other than survival and their baser impulses. I refer to the question of the nature of reality itself, of perception and invention, the birth of philosophy, really. What is real? In perceiving a thing do we create or redefine it? There are merits to the discussion and related works down the millenia, of varying significance trying to parse the "truth" of the matter: We still talk about the Allegory of the Cave and the Wachowskis are hard at work on a fourth Matrix movie. Self-awareness — such as it is — and the frontal lobe capacity for philosophizing are the foremost attributes and symptoms of the human condition, and the expression thereof runs the gamut from the sensitive and insightful to the laboriously academic to the organic-compound-induced silliness of late-night, late-adolescent verbal diarrhea.
In his movies Mike Cahill, whose work I know more by reputation than direct experience, takes a bold stance: He embraces and engages with the Big Questions of human identity/existence without pretending to have the answers at hand. In its way, this is an exercise in pure philosophy, the articulation of the exploration of an idea without a prescribed end-point. That's a noble undertaking but is it the stuff of cinema?
Nearly a decade ago — wait, how long? — Cahill generated a fair bit of buzz with his feature debut Another Earth, which posits the existence of a parallel world, complete with alternate versions of everybody. Explorations of existential crises ensue. He followed that with I Origins (2014), which uses the human eye (yes, punny title) as portal to an exegesis on creationism versus evolution and whether identity is innate, etc. With Bliss, he adds a meditation on the manipulation of reality, the creation of memory and the diaphanous, permeable nature of the human mind.
Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson), recently divorced, struggling with an unfulfilling job and a pill problem, may have accidentally killed his boss; this should present a number of challenges. But then he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who insists the world is a simulation and appears able to manipulate its imposed reality. Suddenly the boss thing doesn't seem like such a big deal. Nor does living in a tent city, becoming estranged from his kids and occasionally getting arrested for busting up a roller rink, because the real world might actually be made of beautiful white villas nestled on a verdant seashore. Or maybe not.
Greg is essentially our proxy here and his perspective is a definitively unreliable one. Which is the point, ultimately, but it makes for a perhaps unintentionally unsatisfying experience. The movie's exploration of the notion of bliss and the human tendency to pursue it regardless of consequence feels unformed and a little preachy after sitting with it for an hour and half. I've long admired the work of both Wilson and Hayek, but they seem distinctly miscast here. Whether this is a problem that occurred on the page, on set or in the editing room is hard to say, but the overall experience is neither particularly heady nor entertaining enough to return to. R. 143M. AMAZON PRIME.
MALCOLM & MARIE. Last year, as we waited for our pulmonary organs to liquefy and democracy to collapse, there were intermittent whispers that a movie was being made in quarantine. From the vantage point of the new normal, it doesn't seem all that noteworthy, but facing the prospect of no new content and the end of the world, it was pretty exciting.
That movie is Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya, and written and directed by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation, 2018). As one might expect, the setup is rather simple: Malcolm and Marie return to a gorgeous beach-side house following the premier of the movie he has written and directed, which has been received rapturously. He's on an unrivalled high; she is not. Despite her entreaties, he starts a conversation about her displeasure, which escalates into a protracted argument touching on her life experience, his merits as an artist, popular perception of his work and the very underpinnings of their relationship. It is a showcase for both actors, Zendaya in particular, but it is also a testament to the craft of the thing that it does not feel like an experiment. Timeless and thoroughly contemporary, punishingly well-observed, beautifully shot (on film, in black and white) and edited, Malcolm & Marie speaks more to creativity spurred by challenges than it does to any sort of imposed limitation. It is a standard bearer for the return to fundamentals these plague years have hopefully brought about in commercial art. It's just two people, alternately mad and madly in love, but I didn't want to miss a frame of it. R. 106M. NETFLIX.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good care chase.