'The Trouble With Bliss'

The difficulties of adapting idiosyncratic literature to the screen are all too apparent in "The Trouble With Bliss," which turns Douglas Light's well-received debut novel into a misfired quirkfest whose put-upon slackerish hero arrives at a vague breakthrough by way of random adversities.

The difficulties of adapting idiosyncratic literature to the screen are all too apparent in “The Trouble With Bliss,” which turns Douglas Light’s well-received debut novel into a misfired quirkfest whose put-upon slackerish hero arrives at a vague breakthrough by way of random adversities. One can guess how the elements here might have been alluring on the page, but helmer/co-scenarist Michael Knowles’ third feature doesn’t find the distinctive tone needed to make its eccentric characters less than irksome and its plot more than arbitrary. Theatrical launch will be brief, with TV cast names boosting home-format prospects thereafter.

Morris Bliss (“Dexter’s” Michael C. Hall) is a 35-year-old East Village native with no job, spouse, plans or motivation, still living at home with a cranky widowed dad (Peter Fonda). At the outset, Morris is enjoying a surprising windfall in the form of Stephanie (Brie Larson), an attractive young woman who’s practically forced her way into his bed. Post-coitally, however, that aggression begins to alarm, as the near-stranger insists he say “I love you,” discusses his future as her boyfriend, reveals she’s underage, and turns out to be the daughter of his burly high-school pal Jetski (Brad William Henke).

That last fact provides increasing discomfort as Morris fends off a second pushy female suitor, married neighbor Andrea (Lucy Liu). Never quite meshing with the main narrative are appearances by Morris’ best friend, N.J. (Chris Messina), who’s just abandoned a fiancee but finds a new love (Sarah Shahi, whose role really doesn’t make much sense).

There are occasional, long verbal digressions (like a monologue about a rat killing) and physical ones (notably a paintball battle with some squatters) that feel like book passages awkwardly preserved in a script that no longer conveys their context. Finally Morris experiences some sort of murky awakening, and departs for his ancestral homeland, Greece, though how that might sort him out, or even how he got the money for the trip, is anyone’s guess.

Aiming for the delightfully offbeat, pic instead feels rudderless and incomplete, kept watchable by performers nonetheless undermined by their material. The appealing Hall has little to do beyond look befuddled; Larson and Liu are stuck playing the kind of ill-conceived screwball-movie women whose main quirks consist of being exasperating and irrational. (Still, Liu’s line readings add occasional spark.) Rhea Perlman is listed by many sources as playing a supporting role, but her character does not appear to have survived the final edit.

Assembly is adequate. Daniel Alcheh’s bouzouki-flavored score emphasizes a Grecian motif otherwise barely present in the story before suddenly looming large at the conclusion.

The Trouble With Bliss

Production

A Variance Films release of a 7A Prods. presentation in association with Torn Sky Entertainment, Topiary Prods. and Offhollywood Pictures. Produced by John Ramos, Michael Knowles, John Will. Executive producers, Alex Baladin, Jon Finkel, Chuck Goodgal, Nita Goodgal, Bruce Rogoff, Victoria Rogoff, Dong-Chen Tsai, David E. Price, Brady Richter, Eric Strong. Directed, edited by Michael Knowles. Screenplay, Knowles, Douglas Light, based on the novel "East Fifth Bliss" by Light.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Ben Wolf; music, Daniel Alcheh; production designer, Lucio Seixas; art director, Cassia Maher; costume designer, Amy C. Bradshaw; sound, David Groman; sound designer, Rich Bologna; re-recording mixer, Tom Efinger; assistant director, Dan Taggartz. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, March 21, 2012. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Michael C. Hall, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Brad William Henke, Sarah Shahi, Lucy Liu, Peter Fonda, Scott Johnsen.

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