We all have our issues, grand and small. With something like Maniac, Netflix’s limited series, it brings the issues of two very different but broken people to the forefront. They enter a mysterious, lucrative drug trial in search of answers to their own lives: one believing it is for a higher purpose, and the other looking to escape reality. It leads down a path of immense madness, genre jumping, and complete bliss. It’s also quite easily a favorite of 2018.
Jonah Hill stars as Owen, a man having fallen victim to his own surroundings. His family looks at him as a hindrance, an unstable, possibly schizophrenic pawn meant to protect their favored son. His life is a mess, and this drug trial, given to him as a mission from a portal jumping handler (who also happens to be in his brother’s image), is the pattern he’s been looking for. Emma Stone stars as Annie, a woman suffering trauma from the relationships with her sister and her mother, turning to drugs in an attempt to relive an incredibly unpleasant but solid memory. But with supplies low, she enters the drug trial as a way of having a larger supply.
This is only the beginning pieces of a larger puzzle. The ten hours are a mesmerizing display of otherworldly ordeals. The year is up for debate: it appears stuck in a present day with 80’s technology, never quite giving up the secret of when it is occurring. There are random but minimal optical illusions playing tricks on you, things that can be either hints or clever tricks to throw you off the scent. Then there’s the trial itself, entering the subjects into a dream-like reality to face their emotions head-on. Each of the three pills offers a different scenario, some intersecting between Annie and Owen.
Cary Joji Fukunaga, under Patrick Somerville’s writing (and his writing staff), have created a world easy to fall in love with. It’s mechanical and dirty, not quite perfect and showing its bloated seams. If you can’t pay for something, there’s an ad buddy, someone who reads advertisements to you until your payment is met. There’s a robot that cleans up dog poop, but it can get caught on the roots of nearby trees. The drug trial facility microwaves its subject’s brains to induce them into the system, burn and scorch marks on the panels a mere inch or two from the subject’s heads. It’s all little details of an imperfect world, where the world building around these characters is quirky and always adding something.
There’s hints of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brazil, and Inception in Maniac. Diving into the subconscious and finding the root problem in a rudimentary and dangerous way has been done before, but here, with its tone and talent in front of and behind the camera, it manages to say something new with similar trappings.
Fukunaga’s direction leads to some absolutely stunning visuals. Aided by a heavy use of solid colors, and jumping around to different worlds and genres, it’s always appealing to the eye, zipping around from comedic moment to dramatic revelation in a way that never fell flat for me. I was completely on board for the entire duration, every beat hitting. The score by Dan Romer is wonderful, at times beautiful and others menacing. It’s a fantastic sound, playful and emotional when it needs to be.
The subplot of the pharmaceutical company, with Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno running the trial, was equal parts bizarrely formal and manic in its execution, their strange connection fun to watch unfold. Both Theroux and Mizuno are captivating in their performances, providing an odd couple dynamic thrown into chaos as the trial takes a turn. Sally Field is used sparingly, but her know-it-all pompousness in her role was different from her usual role and works well.
But it’s in Hill and Stone’s performances that the show works the most. Each broken in their own way, Hill plays his character with a quiet sadness, as though at the end of his rope, while Stone plays hers with a dogged determination, likely to hurt some people along the way. They play various other personalities over the course of the series, with the various subconscious levels, giving them something spectacular to work with and never growing stale. They provide a solid heart for these ten episodes, and put in some fantastic performances.
The show’s use of emotional trauma and how it affects both Hill and Stone’s characters, is a major factor to the show’s success. Their conflict, even when told in extravagant and bizarre ways, dives into who they are, and what their fears or hang-ups may be. They are playing roles in these dreams/realities, and yet they are pieces of themselves, battling with things they must come to terms with. It can be great to see the fantastical crime stories and fantasy genres played up, but they play to their healing and to the deeper meaning within.
Maniac is one of television’s best of the year, a limited series that provides something strange, enigmatic and new. It’s a towering work about the mind and what can damage it, and what it can take to get on a path of healing. It will certainly not be for everyone, perhaps too odd or meandering for some. But I loved every moment of it, along for the adventure, and came out absolutely surprised. Maniac is well worth your attention.
Maniac is available on Netflix, and is a limited series with ten episodes.