Cameron Lee ’20 / Emertainment Monthly staff writer
Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers for Manic.
Maniac is a difficult show to describe; it has shades of Inception, Legion, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ex Machina, Mr. Robot, and a Wes Anderson film all strung together by excellent direction by future James Bond director Cary Fukunaga (as long as he doesn’t get fired). On the surface Maniac sounds like a confusing mish-mash of ideas colliding with each other; that analysis would be correct but Maniac at its core is a story of two people from different walks of life struggling with their own inner demons finding and emotionally connecting with each other through unusual means, in this case, being an experimental pharmaceutical treatment.
Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) have struggled most of their lives; Annie’s mother walked out on her and her sister was killed in a horrific car accident while she survived the ordeal. Owen is the son of a wealthy wall street tycoon and has struggled with schizophrenia his entire life and has to testify as a witness for his older brother’s sexual assault trial. He’s lonely, depressed, and lives by myself. They both enter the experimental Neberdine treatment in hopes of being cured. But the treatment takes many unexpected turns involving everything from a sentient talking computer named GRTA, the main doctor dying unexpectedly in the middle of the trial and being replaced by his crazy and mother fearing work partner James Mantleray (Justin Theroux in a crazy darkly funny role ) whose colleague Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) based the very computer off James’s crazy therapist celebrity mother Greta Mantleray (Sally Field in one of her best performances, she also voices GRTA). As the treatment goes on the danger gets even higher. The subjects are transported into stories based on their own fears, memories, and desires. We see a 1980’s crime caper, a fantasy epic, a science fiction espionage tale, an Agatha Christie inspired mystery; but in all of them Owen and Annie both end up crossing paths with each other’s storylines in unexplainable ways.
This series would not work as well as it does without the confident and amazing direction by Cary Fukunaga. It’s not a surprise to see why True Detective went downhill after he left the series, without his Emmy winning direction that show would have been a confounding mess and it wouldn’t have given us the best one-take tracking shot of the decade in episode 4, “Who Goes There.” His direction here proves he’s capable of tackling any genre. He delivers an entertaining 80’s throwback storyline and a believable fantasy world, a flashy one take shootout in an embassy, makes excellent use of light and camera angles, and gets the best from his actors. The score by Dan Romer is also excellent and works wonders during the emotional peaks and moments during later scenes in the series. That being said it takes a while to get adjusted to this strange world and Owen’s / Annie’s storyline. But around the halfway point the flow and pacing of the show start to take hold and watching these vignette genre storylines which links to our two main characters past, present, and future starts to become an easy and compelling binge to get behind. Justin Theroux is incredibly entertaining and funny as a broken and messed up scientist working through his mother problems. Theroux pulls out all the stops to make his performance very memorable and leaves the viewer wanting more. Stone and Hill both turn in commendable turns in their respective roles. They work best when their together as their chemistry is quite good and by the end of the series, it’s easy to care about both of them.
Does it all work? Not quite. The pacing takes a while to find it’s growth, some of the big ideas the series tries to present don’t fully work, and some of these themes and storylines have been done better in the past. But it’s great to see an ambitious project mostly succeed in its goals. It’s not a show for everyone; but, it’s a great exploration into what we define as our own failures in life, our own purpose in life, and how to let go of our past mistakes. Maniac is a mess of different concepts, ideas, and genres, but it’s a beautiful and gorgeous mess.
Series Grade: B