The following is a full review of Netflix’s Maniac — Developed by Cary Joji Fukunaga & Patrick Somerville.
It is a good time to be Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation, who won an Emmy for directing the first season of HBO’s True Detective. Although Fukunaga’s career has seen him deal with behind-the-scenes production issues, with his exit from 2017’s IT being the primary example, he may have just had the best week of his career.
It was recently reported that he is going to be directing the 25th James Bond Eon Productions-film, and, in the same week, his new show, Maniac, of which he directed all ten episodes, was released on Netflix. I watched Fukunaga’s latest Netflix collaboration over the weekend, and I highly recommend you do too. It is just the right amount of bonkers for it to work.
Originally based on a Norwegian series, Maniac takes place in the not-too-distant (but entirely believable) future where people lose their lives to virtual reality sex and where people walk around with ‘ad buddies,’ i.e. men and women that can pay for you if they, in turn, can walk around with you and read multiple ads to you. It really isn’t too far-fetched.
The series follows two central characters who are headed in the same direction: Owen Milgrim (played by Jonah Hill), a depressed and suicidal son of a wealthy family, and Annie Landsberg (played by Emma Stone), a woman who abuses an unreleased drug to punish herself for how a certain past relationship ended.
Once the mini-series really finds its footing, Annie and Owen both take part in a risky pharmaceutical trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech (NPB). NPB has promised that the goal of the trial is to make sure the trial’s pills and stages can cure depression, mental illnesses, and heartbreak.
Overseeing the trial is Dr. Azumi Fujita (played by Sonoya Mizuno), Dr. Robert Muramoto (played by Rome Kanda), who has a relationship with an emotional supercomputer, and Dr. James K. Mantleray (played by Justin Theroux), the toupee-wearing son of famous therapist Dr. Greta Mantleray (played by Sally Field).
The description above only scratches the surface of the mind-bending and genre-curious Netflix limited series from Fukunaga and Somerville, Maniac, which I, in notes and conversations, have described as a blend of FX’s Legion and Netflix’s Black Mirror with some quirkiness thrown in for good measure.
Maniac is an experimental show with a really cool and stylish retro look. It is basically a marvelous presentation of the 1970’s idea of the future if it were put to screen today. The trial location has a really neat look, as does the visualization of the supercomputer and its mood swings. Furthermore, Fukunaga and co-developer Patrick Somerville take us to these far-out worlds that have no place existing in a show about depression and pharmaceutical trials. The show does this by showing us the hallucinations inside of Annie and Owen’s heads while they go through the three stages of the trial.
Maniac has a virtual reality scene, as well as episodes dedicated to various hallucinations that, among other things, give Emma Stone a chance to play both a CIA agent and an elf in a Tolkienesque wilderness. Oh, and it is also a pretty memorable Superbad-reunion for Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, who have both become much bigger stars than they were back then.
While it is fun to see these great actors together again, they do not both work well for the show. It isn’t just that one of them outshines the other. I just don’t think that Jonah Hill was right for this show. Although it is true that his character is designed to be severely depressed, Jonah Hill’s performance is, in large parts, one-note, uninviting, and drab even in some of the hallucination scenes. There are two moments when it seems like Hill had fun with the show. In episode eight “The Lake of the Clouds,” he gets to voice an animal, and then, in episode nine “Utangatta”, he gets to wear a blonde wig and speak with a high-pitched foreign accent.
But, other than that, he doesn’t work well for the series and, considering the fact that the first episode is basically an incomplete character introduction to his Owen Milgrim role, that is a real problem. When Annie describes how Owen is, she talks of a caring and a sweetness underneath a low-level sadness — but I don’t think Jonah Hill really manages to get the sweetness across — at least not in a satisfactory way. It must be said, that while I thought there were compelling moments before this point, the series doesn’t truly find its footing until it tries to have fun with the concept — make of that what you will.
Emma Stone, on the other hand, makes the most of this opportunity to show her talents in various genres. Her character’s introduction works because she absolutely delivers in each and every emotional scene she gets. But even more important than that is the idea that I think Emma Stone clearly has fun with some of these genre-hopping hallucinations.
While I really did have fun with the Maniac-concept, the series’ quirks, and some of the inspired performances, the biggest problem that I had with the show was how hollow I thought some of the hallucination narratives were. While some of these hallucination stories are interesting, I had a tough time really caring about them because they were not always specifically about Annie and Owen’s real-life problems.
The details of the story are always important, but the stories were not always compelling in the hallucinations. I found that to be somewhat exhausting, and even when the show’s hallucination scenes work beautifully they were never operatic or disarmingly captivating in the way the most memorable episodes of The Leftovers were.
Netflix’s Maniac won’t be for everyone, and I suspect that many will lose interest due to how long it takes for the show to truly begin. But I found its sci-fi style (including its excellent production design) and quirkiness to be charming, and I was captivated by some, but not all, of the series’ performances. I think this is a strong, but strange fall entertainment option that has moments showcasing both deep emotion and delightful curiosities. And even if Maniac doesn’t ever knock your socks off in the way that you want it to, then at least you get to see Emma Stone talk to a dragonfly and later explain the concept of loss to an overly emotional supercomputer.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen