Series Review

'Maniac' is an uneven mess of a dystopian drug series

Dark comedy? Drama? Sci-fi? Netflix's 10-part series about a mind-bending drug trial is a disappointing mismatch of ideas

30 September 2018 - 00:00
By Tymon Smith
Emma Stone as a drug addict and Jonah Hill as a weird Icelandic diplomat with a squeaky voice take up arms in 'Maniac'.
Image: Netflix Emma Stone as a drug addict and Jonah Hill as a weird Icelandic diplomat with a squeaky voice take up arms in 'Maniac'.

There's a lot to be expectant and excited about when it comes to Netflix's latest 10-part dystopian series Maniac.

Conceived and directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation and recently announced as the next director of James Bond) and novelist Patrick Somerville, the show is inspired by a Norwegian series set in a mental institution.

Fukunaga and Somerville have really only taken the original show's dealing with ideas of mental illness and reinvented the rest to suit their own interests in looking at philosophical issues of how we construct the narratives that sustain our sanity in increasingly strange times. Unfortunately the result is an uneven mess that never manages to find a balance between its ideas and their execution.

The story takes place in a version of New York that has echoes of the present day but incorporates retro-aspects of '80s and '90s dystopian elements: people walk around in a desaturated urban landscape in which robots follow dogs to clean up their poop and you can call on the services of an "ad buddy" to help you pay for things - a service that costs you the pain of having to be accompanied by a '50s-style salesman who reads you reams of advertising in exchange for the loan.

People walk around in a desaturated urban landscape in which robots follow dogs to clean up their poop

In this world, Owen Milgrim is the last son and black sheep of a wealthy family - still excluded from the family portrait and required by the clan to take the fall for something that his father (Gabriel Byrne) assures him will ruin them should he fail to step up.

Owen previously had a breakdown and is a diagnosed schizophrenic who receives messages from a chipper imaginary version of his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) telling him that he is destined to save the world. Jed tells Owen that he will meet a partner who will assist him in his mission.

When Owen signs up for a drug trial in which the combination of three pills and the most powerful computer yet developed will aim to obliterate the need for therapy and give its subjects the gift of eternal joy, he meets fellow guinea pig Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and believes her to be his partner in global salvation.

Annie has signed up for the trial because she's addicted to one of the pills used in the test and this is the only way she can score more.

WATCH | The trailer for Maniac

The programme is run by an earnest, chain-smoking scientist Dr Azumi Fujita (Sonoyo Mizuno), her neurotic supervisor Dr James K. Manterlay (Justin Theroux) and their Kubrickian emotional supercomputer programmed using elements of the research of Manterlay's self-help pop-psychology superstar and estranged mother Greta (Sally Field). It works by placing the subjects through a series of dream states and gauging their reactions on their journey towards freedom from therapy.

It's in the representation of these various dream states that Fukunaga is given free rein to show off his directing skills in a series of almost self-contained tributes to film noir, '80s Melanie Griffith-style comedies and even a Game of Thrones-influenced world populated by elves and eagles.

It's also here that the show goes off the rails and becomes mostly a stylish pastiche of ideas and atmosphere that draw from the work of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, and Stanley Kubrick. But it doesn't quite achieve Gondry's playfulness, Kaufman's philosophical intrigue or Kubrick's menace and never satisfactorily manages to maintain a real connection between Jonah Hill (as a weird Icelandic diplomat) and Stone's characters' search for redemption and the adventures they're thrust into.

While Stone proves herself versatile and empathetic in a variety of roles, Hill is so insistent on reining in his manic comic persona to demonstrate his serious acting ability that he becomes a one-dimensional sad man with little depth.

The mismatch is increasingly infuriating and is not helped by the addition of Theroux's annoyingly over-the-top Dr Strangelove antics in the other part of the story involving his relationships with the computer, his assistant and his mother.

Even the inclusion of Sally Field can't make 'Maniac' come together with sufficient dramatic and emotional coherence

Even the inclusion of Sally Field can't make Maniac come together with sufficient dramatic and emotional coherence.

By the time the sentimental conclusion works itself out over the course of the final two episodes, it mostly amounts to an energetic jumbling together of sly references rather than a satisfactorily intelligence-challenging examination of the very real and serious questions raised by mental illness.

It's also disappointing, in light of the obvious talents of its creators and cast, that Maniac is ultimately an empty exercise that doesn't achieve the programme's intention of creating eternal joy but rather only succeeds in creating annoyance and disappointment of so many unfulfilled expectations. 

• Maniac is streaming on Netflix.