Cary Joji Fukanaga’s Maniac is a trippy adventure, anchored by strong performances from Emma Stone and Justin Theroux.
It’s hard to describe Netflix’s Maniac because of how much it swerves and bobs. Cary Joji Fukanaga’s limited series is a tragic comedy about trying to heal oneself, but its darkness is set off by dramatic flourishes of genre shifting. At its center are two lead performances from Emma Stone and Jonah Hill that expand our knowledge of their abilities as actors.
Hill’s Owen Milgrim suffers from a consuming depression, and he can barely look at anyone in the eye. He lives in a compact apartment and is being coached by his family to lie in an upcoming trial to help clear his brother’s (Billy Magnussen in full douchebag mode) name. Stone’s Annie Landy is a ball of fire and fury. Any time we see her get an answer she doesn’t agree with, she unloads on people, and she spends her days sleeping in a pill induced coma. She proudly exclaims that she’s a recreational drug user, and she insists that she isn’t a junkie.
Owen and Annie cross paths when they both participate in mysterious pharmaceutical drug trial that promises to cure anyone’s personal woes. Annie needs a paycheck to help get a fix, but Owen is invested to better himself. They are held in a retro facility and they are given alphabet soup shaped pills to induce them into a deep sleep to confront their demons. It’s then that things get…strange.
Owen and Annie start crossing paths in each other’s reflections, and there Fukanaga is allowed to let Patrick Somerville’s scripts soar. In one episode, Stone and Hill are the Marinos, a married couple embroiled in a caper over a dead woman’s coveted pet lemur. There’s a Lord of the Rings homage as well as a bonkers Icelandic spy actioner that would make Armando Iannucci jealous. Each chapter allows Stone and Hill to try on different variations of themselves.
Ultimately, what makes Maniac so compelling are the performances by its cast. Owen and Annie are both desperate and lonely and the show acknowledges the characters’ pain. Stone and Hill aren’t just donning costumes for fun, but rather they are burrowing deeper and deeper within themselves to understand why they are so miserable. It asks its characters to look inward to help themselves. It’s both funny and sad–thoughtful and confusing.
Hill has never been more introverted. His mouth barely opens when he speaks, his head turned downward. Stone’s character seems to get more focus by the second half of the season, and that might be because she reminds us how charismatic she is on screen. When she plays Linda Marino, she reminded me of Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob with her teased hair, harsh accent, and gum chomping. On the other side of the pill popping, we have Justin Theoroux’s Dr. James K. Mantleray, a man so steeped in mommy issues that he lends a comic flair to every scene he’s in. The only thing I request is more Sally Field. Because, let’s face it, the world could use more Sally Field (even though she voices a computer in addition to playing a narcissistic help guru).
The world we are living in feels like a diorama of the future trapped in 1980’s video game motifs. The lights glow neon pinks and blues and the production design (especially of a the testing facility) is reminiscent of something designed as a “vision of the future.”
Is Maniac a puzzle or does it want you to discover the folds of the mind? It’s better than Westworld–that’s for sure. It doesn’t want to trick you or feel superior. It’s like a Rubik’s cube, desperate to be solve. That other HBO vision of the future is bleak, but Maniac has a glimmer of hope. Humanity may be broken, but there is at least a chance at a new start.