Okay, Maniac takes a little explaining. Strap in.
Two troubled people sign up for a secretive, experimental drug trial that promises to solve all their problems for good in three days flat.
Owen Milgram (Jonah Hill) might be schizophrenic. He’s definitely being pressured by his wealthy industrialist father Porter (Gabriel Byrne) to lie under oath to get his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) out from under a serious sexual assault charge. He’s also hallucinating a different version of Jed from time to time.
Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) is adrift, numbing her grief over her dead sister Ellie (Julia Garner) with drugs, and having trouble relating to her father, who has, so it seems, permanently sealed himself in a high-tech isolation chamber.
Both of them leap at the chance for a quick fix to their surfeit of personal problems. However, the people running the pharmaceutical trial, head boffin Dr. James Mantleray (Justin Theroux) and his associate Dr. Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), have their own dilemmas to deal with — for one thing, Mantleray has serious mother issues. For another, the A.I. directly supervising the program might be developing emotional problems of its own.
Nonetheless, the show must go on, and Owen and Annie, along with a number of other volunteers, are subjected to chemically induced immersive hallucinations — a kind of druggy VR — where they find that they, alone of all the subjects, share their dreams. What could it all mean?
Well, the thing is, Maniac is in no hurry to tell you. Created by Patrick Somerville, The Leftovers (2015-17), and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga — True Detective (2014), and soon to be wasting his talents on another James Bond — Maniac is elliptical, obtuse, entertaining, intriguing, scattered, and often frustrating. It seems to be trying to present a kind of Grand Unified Field Theory of Absolutely Everything — the phrase ‘the pattern is the pattern’ is repeated, mantra-like, throughout the series — but doesn’t seem to have a strong handle on exactly what that might be. If you’re looking for existential insight, you’re much better off mainlining The Good Place (2016).
Which is not to say that Maniac is completely bereft of charms. Although set in New York City, it has a lot in common with what you might think of as West Coast Pre-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi — the sort of stuff conceptualized by old mate Philip K. Dick back in the day (A Scanner Darkly, with its narcotic reality breakdowns and casual surreality, comes immediately to mind) and immanentized on the screen in movie’s like Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) and Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006). You know, the sort of films where it seems the ragged edges of the world are frying quickly, and it’s all too big, weird and ultimately exhausting to do anything but surf the final wave.
The setting is sort of our world, but a few steps reviewed — the gig economy is worse, while privacy and personhood are lessened — all neatly personified by ‘Ad Buddies,’ people whose job it is to walk around with you rattling off advertising copy as a form of payment, and ‘Friend Proxy,’ folks that pretend to be your friends in exchange for cash. We also go down a rabbit hole of virtual worlds, including parallels of 1980s Los Angeles and a fantasy setting in which Annie imagines going on a Tolkienesque quest with her sister — all other considerations aside, if you ever wanted to see Emma Stone as a surly, hard-drinking, half-elf ranger, there’s an episode here that will scratch that particular itch.
The details are fun, like when a test subject played by Allyce Beasley laments her late husband, Herbert — the name of her character’s love interest in the surreal ‘80s dramedy Moonlighting (she played rhyming receptionist Agnes DiPesto, you may recall). Some are a little twee or baffling. All are seemingly self-contained and free-floating in a way that means they never build or coalesce into something greater than their individual elements, although that is clearly the intent. Maniac wants to build to something but never gives us enough to make us want to see exactly what that might be. What we’re left with is the vague worry that, like Lost (2004-10) and The X-Files (1993), the creative team are making this up as they go along, and the ultimate destination will fall far short of our expectations.
Still, the main cast all get to stretch themselves and muck about with wigs and accents — Jonah Hill, at one point, fantasizes he’s the monosyllabic, sensitive scion of a Hell’s Kitchen crime family, complete with neck tattoos and ludicrous braids, while Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects (1995), has fun as his brutal, conniving father. Elsewhere, Sally Field, Forrest Gump (1994), puts in an appearance as Mantleray’s demanding mother Greta, herself a successful pop psychologist, and that’s a blast.
Maniac seems to hope that its nested-box virtual worlds, odd juxtapositions and flip approach to reality and causality will carry the audience over the many bumps on its narrative road, and they oh-so-very-nearly do. In the end, though, this is a lesser effort — enjoyable enough, but not the complex and heady trip it so obviously aims to be.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson