The Netflix limited series, Maniac, debuts Friday, September 21. This is a spoiler-free review for all 10 episodes.
Maniac, a 10-part event series starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone – who reunite for the first time since Superbad provided both of them with breakout roles – is a moderately-amusing, overly-trippy romp that’s sure to garner even more attention now that director Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective: Season 1 fame, has been hired to helm Bond 25.
Hill and Stone, giving it their ambitious all, play lost, damaged souls wandering a satire-saturated “five minutes from now” future world. The results here are mixed, yes, though Maniac’s cardinal sin is that it never touches down long enough to fully resonate emotionally the way it sets out to. It’s unpredictable and full of loopy left turns, sure, but it’s also often dull. Most definitely, it’s another instance of a Netflix show blowing its horn for ten notes when five would have done nicely, but it’s also because this specific type of oddball absurdist art doesn’t benefit from the almighty binge.
If one were looking to create a surreal smoothie, and throw in ingredients like Wes Anderson’s kink, Terry Gilliam’s quirk, Tim & Eric’s anti-comedy, and Charlie Kaufman’s absurdity, you’d get a shake that tastes a lot like Maniac. Based on a Norwegian series bearing the same name, Maniac finds Hill’s schizophrenic Owen Milgrim and Stone’s erratic and angry Annie Landsberg signing up for a pharmaceutical drug trial being overseen by an A.I. named “GRTA” – or “Gerty.” The pills involved are supposed to fix the human brain in a way that’s meant to eliminate the need for counseling and therapy, though Owen and Annie sign up for reasons other than this possible benefit.
It takes about three episodes for both characters to find themselves fully entrenched in the program, where they experience interwoven dreamscapes that secretly reveal their hidden emotional fractures and feature faces they know from their real lives playing “alternate” roles. While it all remains colorful, energetic, and sporadically intriguing, it’s also all over the place. There are so many moving parts, crazy moments, and distracting side stories, that it’s very easy to lose sight of Owen and Annie as the protagonists – and as the languid heart of the tale.
While Maniac is usually impressively strange, it’s also never… not strange. And that wears on you. It’s very rare that you actually experience someone in a real moment – unaltered and untouched by some form of manufactured craziness – and when you do, those moments have to fight extra hard to shine through because of all the artifice you had to endure. No one can be faulted for not “going for it” here, as the cast and creators leave nothing on the table, but as Owen and Annie shift between immersive drug-induced therapy dreams, where they both become different people and embark on different adventures (most of them as a duo), it’s easy to get just as lost in the confounding and smothering virtual spaces as they do.
As the series starts with a narration about life’s coded pattern of seeking connections with other forms of life, and as it becomes clear that Owen and Annie have very specific issues that plague them and prevent them from cultivating the human relationships they desperately need, the show basically gives you the skeleton key to its driving story right out of the gate. And kudos to the series for not shilling as an Eternal Sunshine-style romance, focusing instead on friendship and the basic need for people to interact with each other in meaningful ways. But Maniac also takes the wind out of its own earnest sails by throwing everything into the mix; every genre, every tone, every spark of invention. It never settles into anything on a consistent basis so, as a side effect, you start empathizing with Owen, who’s someone who, daily, can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Hill’s performance as Owen is nicely subdued, as someone who’s retreated into himself so much that he doesn’t even dare attempt to find a friend or lover in real life. Stone has the (more often) showier performance, as a young woman tortured by a traumatic event involving her sister, but she still does a great job of crafting a character who feels real among Maniac’s midway.
Not making headlines, early buzz-wise, are the players in the B Story, which often steals the show, for better or worse. The Leftovers’ Justin Theroux (reuniting with Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville), Crazy Rich Asians’ Sonoya Mizuno, and Sally Field, swarm around the lab rats as quasi-farcical overseers in the grand experiment, having to deal with their own bizarre emotional issues – as well as a malfunctioning A.I. that’s experiencing grief for the first time.
You’ll find yourself wondering why the show focuses so heavily on these characters at times – though it might be as simple as Netflix’s trademark “five pounds in a ten pound bag” – but because their drama picks up while Owen and Annie navigate through their cryptic lucid dreams (which range from crime stories to fantasy tales to spy thrillers), they almost swoop in and steal the series. Theroux’s Dr. Mantleray is a wheelbarrow of nutty neuroses, and comes off as the most heightened and affected character on a show filled with rampant absurdities, but his turmoil also overshadows the actual therapy that’s accidentally happening.