A modern-day parable on the order of "The Trial," "Stuart Bliss" is a field day for paranoids and conspiracy theorists, as it maneuvers through issues of privacy, identity and religion with sly, deadpan humor.

A modern-day parable on the order of “The Trial,” “Stuart Bliss” is a field day for paranoids and conspiracy theorists, as it maneuvers through issues of privacy, identity and religion with sly, deadpan humor. The low-budget production gets real value for the dollar and could buck the odds and find a modest niche in the theatrical marketplace. But the effort will be better accepted in small-screen venues and serve as an excellent calling card for its creators.

The title character (Michael Zelniker) is a low-key, dependable type who’s a wizard at inventing campaigns for surplus military materials. His latest challenge is to promote Geiger counters as a vital household convenience. He approaches the task with dogged diligence, dictating ideas into a tape recorder.

Stuart’s pretty much tuned out the rest of the world. But he receives a personal wake-up call when he arrives home early to find his wife, Janet (Dea Lawrence), packing for a trip to destinations unknown.

The alarm bells aren’t completely a good thing. What initially catches his attention are warnings of a coming apocalypse. He then begins to perceive every subtle change in his office as a sign of intrusion, imagining that he’s being watched and possibly polluted with a contaminated substance. The ever-present Geiger counters start registering off the gauge whenever he approaches.

The script by Zelniker and director Neil Grieve has a disquieting edge, and more than hints that there might be some validity to Stuart’s worries. Ted (Derek McGrath), a co-worker who shared offices with him prior to Stuart’s promotion, comes across as wholly untrustworthy and on the cusp of violence in his quest to get ahead. And no matter how ingeniously he tries to keep out prying eyes, Stuart discovers that everyone knows his personal business.

Zelniker cleverly anchors the piece by making his character a virtual cipher for most of the tale. He’s rather like Chance in “Being There,” although Stuart is more of a wild card. Also setting the right tone is McGrath as his smiling, if surly, seemingly unprincipled rival, and Lawrence, cast in the dual roles of Stuart’s wife and a company assistant — a device that eerily recalls that classic of paranoia, “Vertigo.”

Grieve demonstrates great skill in capturing a claustrophobic, stifling environment on a very low budget. There are no frills or visual tricks in “Stuart Bliss,” but its quiet observation and grim humor pack an unexpected emotional wallop.

Stuart Bliss

Production

A Perilous Pictures presentation. Produced by Michael Zelniker, Neil Grieve, Jens Sturup. Directed by Neil Grieve. Screenplay, Grieve, Michael Zelniker.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), Jens Sturup; editor, Grieve; music, John Jones; production designer, Carey Meyer; costume designer, G. Michael Campbell; sound, Alison Fisher, Matt Temple, Takako Ishikawa; assistant directors, Katerina Vyssouli, Wade Danielson. Reviewed at L.A. Independent Film Festival, Jan. 18, 1998. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Stuart Bliss - Michael Zelniker Janet Bliss/Katerina - Dea Lawrence Carl Plummerson - Hoke Howell Ted - Derek McGrath Mrs. Johnson - Ania Suli the Rev. Walmsley - Mark Fite Jehovah's Unite Man - Ken Earl Jehovah's Unite Woman - Charlotte Booker Grencato - Emilio Borelli
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