Maniac review: Netflix unleashes Emma Stone, Jonah Hill in Cary Fukunaga’s trippy new series
Director - Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast - Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sally Field, Sonoya Mizuno
Rating - 4/5
A pill. A pill to cure all your troubles, to rid you of all your illnesses, a pill that can - as the mad scientist at the centre of the new Netflix mini-series, Maniac, says - ‘eradicate completely all unnecessary and inefficient forms of human pain forever’.
Hollywood has had an interesting history with pills, and pain. Decades ago, Morpheus offered Neo the choice between a blue pill and a red one that would take him, like Alice, into a scary wonderland. And only a few years ago, Bradley Cooper developed an addiction to a decidedly more powerful variety in Limitless, and discovered that it gave him the ability to, among other things, out-act Robert De Niro for a couple of hours.
Maniac offers a more complete course, pill-wise. For starters, it doesn’t restrict itself to just one, but gives its subjects three -- one to cure each stage of their ‘illness’, an A-B-C obstacle course that ends with the all-important ‘confrontation’.
Watch the Maniac trailer here
It also makes a case for the most well-earned blank cheque in recent memory. It is, as the trailers have very epically advertised, ‘A new limited series from Cary Joji Fukunaga’ - the visionary filmmaker behind Sin Nombre, True Detective (Season 1), Netflix’s very first original film (the majestic Beasts of No Nation), and as of yesterday, the man chosen to direct the 25th James Bond movie.
And he’s cashed that cheque in the riskiest manner imaginable, with a show that is as existential as it is absurd, as funny as it is surreal, filled with the whimsy of a Charlie Kaufman script and the visual fearlessness of the Wachowski Sisters.
Having watched all 10 of its episodes in one go, I still haven’t quite made up my mind how feel about it - and I’d imagine it would take multiple viewings to fully appreciate its many carefully thought-out details. While it is very easy to acknowledge the sheer craftsmanship that must have gone into making the show - the impeccable production design, the flashy camera work and the delicate tonal balance - Maniac is nearly impossible to describe, and ironically - considering what it is about - very difficult to form an emotional connection with.
It’s set in an alternate reality sometime around the ‘80s, in a world that is both recognisable and oddly alien. Sometime around that decade, perhaps around the time Sting wrote Every Breath You Take, our timelines diverged. While we marched towards global warming, terrorism and economic disarray, the world of Maniac seemingly underwent an overnight technological evolution. So even though artificial intelligence is very much a reality in the show, the tech is housed inside a clunky white mainframe that seems to be running on 8-bit software. Think of it like how Batman: The Animated Series used modern technology, and yet retained that iconic ‘40s art-deco style.
But all this is mere table-setting, and Maniac certainly spends a lot of time laying the plates, polishing the cutlery and ironing out the table cloth. For two whole episodes, in fact, Fukunaga and writer Patrick Somerville do little else but introduce the characters - Owen (Jonah Hill), the ostracised schizophrenic son of a wealthy industrialist and Annie (Emma Stone), a chain-smoking drug addict.
In a fit of desperation - Owen is broke and Annie is broken - they enlist themselves as participants in a three-day drug trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech, which is where the aforementioned mad scientist comes in.
Dr James Mantleray (a giggle-inducingly good Justin Theroux) has invented a three-pill course that he believes will exorcise whatever personal demons that may be haunting Owen, Annie, and whoever else has been brave enough to put their names in the basket. With the help of an artificially intelligent computer in which he has uploaded the consciousness of his overbearing mother (stay with me, now) he hopes to cure his ‘patients’ of all their troubles.
Owen has always been an outsider in his family, someone who has, as Annie very insightfully describes it, ‘a low-level sadness that has caring and sweetness underneath it’. There is mention of an incident 10 years ago for which he was institutionalised, but his past is mostly a mystery. Annie, meanwhile, has been unable to come to terms with the accidental death of her sister, in which she may or may not have had a hand.
And so they arrive at the facility, a retro-futuristic lab that looks like one of those Japanese capsule hotels. They’re made to sit beside each other, and like the inmates from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, are given the first pill, which is when Maniac, without much warning, leaps of a cliff and doesn’t look back.
The pill-induced hallucinations send Owen and Annie on mind-bending adventures within their own subconscious, hopping scenarios as seamlessly as Fukanaga hops genres – we go from ‘90s sitcom to ‘40s noir, from a political farce set inside the Icelandic parliament (?) to an impressively accurate facsimile of the Lord of the Rings movies.
The same faces pop up in different dreamscapes, similar to how the Wachowskis used the same actors to play different races and different genders in their overlooked masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. Objects glimpsed in passing three episodes ago reappear; throwaway words, numerical motifs, everything has a purpose. At one point, Jonah Hill spontaneously turns into a hawk and yells the words, “Annie, I am a hawk!”
And then things begin to go wrong. The computer, named GRTA, develops a severe case of depression. And Owen and Annie realise – in a beautiful homage to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – that their dreams are now connected. Together, they can save each other from whatever CIA operative or masked warlord that gets in their way, and together, they can emerge from the shadow of their past.
And regardless of what character they play – weary elves or white rappers – the essence of Owen and Annie is never lost, buried beneath wigs and masked under makeup. Most of the credit for this must go to Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, reuniting for the first time since their breakout film, Superbad.
Maniac is a show for the patient viewer. It’s about identity and destiny. It will most definitely not work for everyone, but that’s what makes it so special. “The combination of hubris and idiocy is inconceivable,” says Sally Field’s character in one scene. I couldn’t have described the show better myself.