Packs a lot of Lower East Side quirkiness into 97 minutes. Maybe too much.
Emerging director Michael Knowles’ feature length narrative debut is an ultimately quirky and, for the most part, entertaining review of life in New York’s rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side. Director Knowles adapted the screenplay from the award winning Douglas Light novel “East Fifth Bliss” which received the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction.
Written in 2007, the screenplay is an up to date look at one of the last New York neighborhoods to succumb to outright gentrification. The film claims a commendable list of famous personalities including Peter Fonda and Rhea Pearlman. Although when it comes to the big names, only Lucy Liu and Michael C. hall get substantial screen time.
The story centers on Morris Bliss’ (Michael C. Hall) halting relationship with higher schooler Stephanie Jouseski (Brie Larson). Hall’s past successes on TV and the big screen include multiple Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG wins and nominations for his famously funny and gripping work in “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter.”
Perhaps it is because “Bliss” needs more time to develop that it comes off more as a TV pilot than a finished feature film. The characters are vibrant and the acting performances shimmering, but there is too much personality for the time allotted.
Sundance award winner Brie Larson plays opposite Hall for much of the film. She executes her lines well enough; however, the script leaves her a woman of mystery. In fact, we hardly know if she is a woman or a girl, for that matter. The question of her age, legal or not, is one of the issues swirling around Bliss and symptomatic of decisions he seems incapable of making.
Throughout the film, fantasies and realities pop into out of his life like old friends. His relationship with the outrageously sexy Andrea (Lucy Liu) adds fuel to the fires of his guilt and emphasizes his ambivalence towards life’s responsibilities. Like everything else, she seems to encourage and discourage Morris, at the same time.
As Stephanie pops up at random moments throughout the movie, Bliss is constantly reminded that he is no longer young and has to begin making decisions. This message is stated in planer terms by his recently widowed father Seymour (Peter Fonda). Fonda is a joy to behold, coming back to live as vibrantly as a curmudgeon as he did as a punk biker in “Easy Rider.”
Brad William Henke plays Steven ‘Jetski’ Jouseski, Morris’ high school classmate who, as it turns out, has more than a passing interest in Morris relationship with high schooler Stephanie. Sarah Shahi (“Fairly Legal”) is another woman of mystery who eventually couples with Morris’ slacker buddy NJ (Chris Messina).
Knowles weaves her in and out of the film as a vision of what might be and what might have been. When NJ hooks up with the vision and she takes him off to the ultimate adventure, Morris comes to realize that there is, indeed, a world out there that is at his fingertips. He reconstructs his map, with the pins in it making his planned destinations, and sets off to an uncertain fate.
Bliss is a funny film, although possibly too imbued with New York “attitude” and a sense of rushed eccentricity. Michael C. Hall is great to watch. His self-conscious touchy-feely style takes the viewer back to his amazing series of performances in “Six Feet Under.”
However, the rest of the characters are more dream-like caricatures than real people. There is little time for the character development all these complex people deserve.
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Directed by: Michael Knowles
Written by: Michael Knowles (screenplay), Douglas Light (novel and screenplay)
Starring: Sarah Shahi, Michael C. Hall and Lucy Liu
Release Date: March 23, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 97 Minutes