"Bliss" is the inexplicable title of an Australian movie that confronts, in a primitive way, mortality, morality, the meaning of life, cancer and environmental abuse. There is no inherent reason why these cosmic topics could not be handled in one movie, but when the movie is a sophomoric allegory that ends up with the hero planting trees in a rain forest and living on nuts and berries, the agenda seems self-conscious to say the least.
Harry Joy (such a clever name) suffers a heart attack on his birthday, has what is called an out-of-the-body experience, sees himself dead and glimpses the Great Beyond. What he sees is Hell, and he is convinced that Hell is where he will be going because he is not good. His family represents a cornucopia of sin: adultery, incest, greed, dishonesty -- not to mention drug dealing, drug taking and incipient alcoholism. He, on the other hand, is a "good" man -- a quality we are told about but not really shown.
Joy determines to "be good" in a serious way and begins firing clients whose products he deems unsavory, starting with the firm that makes something with saccharin in it; saccharine causes cancer. Meanwhile he leaves his happy home and moves into a luxury hotel, where he orders quantities of food from room service and leaves dirty dishes around for days. He orders two hookers, one for his soon-to-be ex-client and one for himself, and thus meets his true love, a latter-day flower child he calls Honey Barbara (she raises bees). Inevitably, his family commits him to a mental hospital, from which he buys his freedom.
And so on and on and on. Honey Barbara clearly represents Principle and Goodness -- and incidentally is the only character who doesn't smoke -- and his tussles with her personify the struggle between his "establishment" life and gift for selling advertising and the pacific life in the woods that he ends up embracing. The fact that they end up together must mean that he becomes a good person, right?
Director-writer (with Peter Carey) Ray Lawrence has such a '60s sensibility that the very terms of the debate seem implausible. Advertising is bad; whole grain bread is good. Living in a beautiful big fancy house is dishonest; living in a shack in the woods is honest.
As Harry Joy, Barry Otto has a strong, rather canine appeal, like a sad-eyed Irish setter. But he also exudes a passivity that ultimately drives sympathy away from him. Helen Jones, on the other hand, glows with such warm and simple sensuality as the flower child that she almost makes you long for the days of discarded rules and Indian dresses.
Bliss, now playing at the K-B Fine Arts, is rated R and has nudity, profanity and some sexual explicitness.