Maniac review: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill's sci-fi adventure is a delightfully crazy, hugely satisfying watch
As one of the showrunners of Maniac, Cary Fukunaga continues to showcase why he is one of the most talked about filmmakers out there.
What is Maniac about? Look in one direction and it feels like a modest dark comedy about two people coming to terms with their psychological issues. Hey presto – look in another direction and it becomes a self referential meta story about the way people watch Netflix. Wait a minute - but it is also a homage to Terry Gilliam – hold on, it is in fact a science fiction sandwich laced with a rather large dose of LSD.
Maniac keeps shifting its colors and tone – constantly, and sometimes frustratingly. But here is the fun part – it is never, even for a moment, an uninteresting show. Because it does not matter which of the aforementioned threads and colors of the show you choose to follow, you would somehow be able to find a logical, streamlined narrative and a conclusion. Think of this like the video game Heavy Rain, where any path chosen has a middle and a coherent end – and your experience purely depends on what genre you want to slot this material in.
Something this weird and challenging could only have been made by Netflix, and there are very few true auteurs out there who would pull off a potentially messy story so smoothly. At the helm of every episode Maniac’s co-creator, Cary Fukunaga, continues to showcase why he is one of the most talked about filmmakers out there. He dives head first into unconventional territory, often blatantly wearing avant-garde left field stylistic choices as a shiny badge of honor. It also seems like a showreel for Fukunaga, where he is telling us he can handle any kind of cinema and render any kind of emotion in you - clever, playful, dark, funny, sad – he has got everything covered.
The best way to appreciate Maniac is to know as little about it as possible. Jonah Hill plays Owen, the youngest son of a family of tycoons, and he does not seem right in the head. He sees hallucinations and has a huge court case coming up where he needs to lie and protect someone. The pressure is too intense and he checks into a strange facility where an experimental drug is being administered to human lab rats. The experiment is supposed to rewire your brain and 'fix' you, but of course things do not go smoothly. As problems escalate, Owen realises he needs to team up with the mysterious Annie (Emma Stone), who is also undergoing this treatment, and find a way to escape.
There are more Easter Eggs in Maniac than most humans can keep track of. Showrunners Fukunaga and Patrick Sommerville seem to have an unbridled love for cinema as they inject dozens of movie references within the show, like the Matrix style pills for 'awakening' purposes, and 'point of no return' patients named McMurphys – named after the protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Everything else also a cascading storm of references, including Owen’s surname being Milgrim – presumably named after the Milgram experiment given what happens in this show. There are also the usual clichés one finds in sci-fi, like talking Artificial Intelligence in a box and alternate methods of currency. But the showrunners toss up the familiar ingredients and turn them into unexpected, hilarious situations.
A lot of delightfully crazy stuff that happens in the show - for instance a computer, that is designed to help humans suffering from depression, hears some bad news and gets depressed. The concept of targeted advertising is skewered with something called an AdBuddy, where a dude simply shows up and spouts verbal ads to your face. It is dystopia rendered in mirthful ways, made all the more entertaining because the heightened atmosphere of the show is not too far from our current reality. Maniac also panders passionately in the gotcha big moment style of shows one currently sees on streaming platforms, a big cliffhanger moment at the end of every episode leading you onto the next. There is a subtle nod to data crunching which may or may not be a reference to the way Netflix makes content, knowing fully well what audiences enjoy and which trigger points to hit.
This smorgasbord of fine ideas is anchored with very good dramatic performances from Hill and Stone – oddly last seen together in Superbad a decade ago, which is why their casting could also be a meta decision. The only uninteresting aspect is that there is too much explanation going on and one wishes the show did not constantly hold the audiences’ hand to elucidate what is happening. Exposition is something that does not need to exist in a show that is this bold – since they went this far they should have gone all the way and actually melted our brains, Shane Carruth-style. What matters, however, is despite the layered throwbacks, meta exercises and genre splicing, the final result is, to some extent, quite original.
Maniac is now streaming on Netflix.
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