Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir-scr Mike Cahill
prd James D Stern
with Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, Ronny Chieng, Joshua Leonard, Steve Zissis, DeRon Horton, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Eugene Young, Slavoj Zizek
release US/UK 5.Feb.21
21/US Amazon 1h44

cooper lendeborg chieng

Is it streaming?

wilson and hayek
Surreal touches and a moody tone give this intriguing film a dreamlike quality, as writer-director Mike Cahill explores the nature of reality through the eyes of people going through trauma. This makes the film feel a bit like a freewheeling thriller, as it takes earth-shaking twists that redefine what we're watching. All of which might make the plot feel a little uneven, but it provides plenty to chew on.
Still reeling from his divorce and now facing unemployment, illustrator Greg (Wilson) has a startling encounter with a woman from one of his drawings, Isabel (Hayek), who is homeless and convinced that the chaotic world they live in is a computer simulation she created, so only a few people around them are real. When she asks Greg for help with her efforts to manipulate this fake world, he haplessly goes along with her. Meanwhile, his grown children (Cooper and Lendeborg) are worried about his declining mental state. And of course there's more to the story.
Striking visual flourishes include whizzy camerawork and subtle digital trickery, which evoke an unusually introspective perspective. It helps that the film was shot in Croatia to create a parallel-style American reality. Because of this brain-bending approach, it's tricky to know what and who is real. This helps us identify with Greg's confusion and his authentic emotional reactions, even though we know things he doesn't, such as that Isabel is plotting with the drug-cooking Kendo (Chieng). So where things go is witty, suspenseful and darkly dramatic.

Playing such a mopey character is against-type for Wilson, and he adeptly nails Greg's hapless approach to his life, especially opposite the expert scene-chewer Hayek, who gives Isabel a superbly magical presence as she essentially turns him into a reluctant superhero before fully blowing his mind. Their evolving personalities and the connection between them is a lot of fun to watch, as is the way they interact with a range of side characters played beautifully as people who have their own lives off-screen. If they're actually real, that is.

While the ultimate revelations are somewhat anticlimactic, the film grapples knowingly with a range of points where emotions, drugs and technology mingle, most notably their impact on memories. There's also a cautionary element to the narrative that touches on the most inventive and resilient aspects of humanity. The salient comment is that ignorance isn't bliss: you have to experience the bad to understand the good, and vice versa. So perhaps it's facing the truth that provides happiness, whatever the truth may be.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 2.Feb.21

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