Maniac, based on a Norwegian series and developed for Netflix by Patrick Somerville and Cary Fukunaga, feels familiar in many ways. There’s a little Science of Sleep in there, some Legion, a dash of Wes Anderson’s aesthetics and an Eternal Sunshine vibe. But Maniac is also unique in the way its view of the future is largely practical and analogue, where robots are almost like cozy critters, and people use floppy disks to experience mind-bending virtual reality. Maniac is a spectacle, spread out over 10 episodes, that often feel like watching someone else’s dream.
That’s both good and bad. Like a dream, Maniac is strange, trippy, and surprising. It follows two strangers: Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), a low-key forgotten son of a wealthy family, and Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), an acerbic young woman who is fixated on a tragedy from her past. Both end up at a drug trial at Neberdine Pharmaceuticals, one that offers the opportunity to take a sequence of medication that may cure you of your past pain. By using a supercomputer to isolate, confront, and accept those traumatic memories in the subconscious mind, the hope is to bring the participants a joy they can otherwise never achieve. Unfortunately, things pretty quickly go awry, as one of the doctors in the study, Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) tells her collaborator (James Mantleray, played by Justin Theroux): “We have a serious problem. I think our computer is horribly depressed.”
Though they had no real connection in the real world, Owen and Annie become linked during the trial, appearing in each other’s computer-guided dreams. These sequences, which take up anywhere from a partial to a full episode, find the pair as different people and characters, mostly unaware that they are not who they are in the real world, playing out vignettes that appear mostly unrelated to the larger story. There can be a charm to that, and there is something that ultimately propels you towards the next episode to see where the trials take them, but it’s all exceptionally disjointed. Again, like a dream, some scenes are left mid-thought, while others take long detours that aren’t particularly interesting. For Hill and Stone, it’s a great excuse to take on wildly different characters. In that, Maniac has a theatricality to it, but only Stone adds any energy to the proceedings.
Speaking of which, Maniac seems much more interested in telling Annie’s story than Owen’s, as Hill mumbles his way through Owen’s much more nebulous tale. Annie has a clear arc with a clear (and ultimately emotional) resolution. The trial becomes — not just for her, but for the computer itself — a meditation on grief. That story is an interesting one, which might have made for a fine, sweet, quirky movie. But (as often happens with Netflix’s series, even limited ones), there’s too much time to fill, with too many other plotlines added in to keep it going. The series runs for 10 episodes, but each varies in length from 25 to 47 minutes, averaging around 35. Where the episodes start and end feels particularly arbitrary, and much of the story before and after the drug trial also seems unnecessary. Maniac is many things, but never one thing in particular.
But whereas the overall vision of Maniac seems messy, it can be beautiful in its details. The script is uneven, but when it lands it does so with panache (“You left us here to complete your life’s work while you were copulating with software!”) The way that Japanese influences permeate everything in the lab (and outside of it) is very unique to a sci-fi story like this, as are the aforementioned analogue details. A tiny, faceless robot that cleans up the sidewalks is somehow one of the most compelling characters. Visually, Fukunaga also manages to find a lot of humor with his camerawork, and there is a hint of satire in the larger world with a service called Ad Buddy that pays for small-ticket items after you watch a host of ads — something that is essentially already in play today.
None of that is really followed up on, though, as Maniac introduces a lot of interesting things but is only ultimately interested in Owen and Annie’s journey to the end of the drug trial. Unfortunately, that ending feels, particularly for Owen, unearned. With Annie it’s different, but then again, it always is (Stone is particularly hilarious in a Lord of the Rings-esque sequence where she plays a weary rover, and it deserves its own movie). When Maniac is good, it’s funny, affecting, and fascinating; when it’s not good, it’s like having a conversation with a student in a Psych 101 class who wants to tell you about a dream they had last night and what it might mean.
It leaves the series as a rambling journey that some will find charming and others frustrating. Both are correct, so ultimately your enjoyment of the series may come down to your tolerance for it when it meanders and loses all its energy and seems to have completely lost the plot. But then Julia Garner and Stone share an exceptionally intense argument, or a devilishly grinning Billy Magnussen (who looks like he’s having a blast) will explode out of nowhere, and you’re pulled back in. (And yet, it’s a little disappointing that the show doesn’t use Mizuno’s talents as well as it should — she was so charming and luminous in Crazy Rich Asians, but here is asked to be staid, hidden behind a wig and massive glasses).
At one point, Owen is asked to think about whether or not his life is being controlled a malfunctioning simulation run by a suicidal computer, and we know that in this case that’s actually true. When that computer, GRTA, asks Annie to stay forever in this dream world, she initially agrees to. But that’s madness, right? Indeed, it’s not exactly what she signed up for. Where some may find their bliss here, others find a nightmare. The same is true with Maniac.
Maniac premieres Friday, September 21st on Netflix.