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‘Maniac’: more than its psychedelic drug scenes

maniac-courtesy-netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

By Michael VerMeulen     9/25/18 11:11pm

Rating: 4.5/5

The new Netflix limited series “Maniac” is a grand, markedly weird science fiction tale that examines themes of familial relationships, reflections upon the past and the nature of reality in odd yet touching ways.

“Maniac” follows Owen (Jonah Hill), a paranoid schizophrenic and black sheep of the wealthy Milgrim family. Unsure of his reality, Owen signs up for an experimental trial for a medication that is claimed to be a panacea for mental illness. There, he meets Annie (Emma Stone), a beleaguered addict haunted by her mistakes regarding her sister. Unforeseen issues among the scientists cause the pair to become deeply intertwined.



The series’ most obvious success is its all-star cast, whose members are at the top of their game. Stone and Hill are stellar at conveying the complexity of their characters’ feelings, often without dialogue. Justin Theroux is hilarious as Dr. Mantleray, the mad scientist behind the whole project, while Sonoya Mizuno has a breakout performance as the stressed-out second-in-command scientist Dr. Fujita. Sally Field also appears in a wonderful twist as Mantleray’s famous psychologist mother, who has a very difficult and estranged relationship with her absurd son. 

The show employs a fascinating narrative structure, where entire episodes revolve around intense drug-induced dreams. In these dreams, Hill and Stone play different and separate characters from their “real-life” selves. From an elf to an old-timey con artist to a deadly assassin, the dream characters are varied and give crucial insight into the characters’ psyches.

With these different dream characters come different types of stories and tones, so connecting them to each other takes great tact. The man who accomplished this balancing act is director Cary Joji Fukunaga, best known for his amazing work on the first season of “True Detective.” As he did with “True Detective,” Fukunaga directed every episode of “Maniac,” demonstrating  his skills with world-building through the show’s ’80s-inspired vision for an alternate near-future New York City. Utilizing the large budget given to the production, Fukunaga chooses important qualities like the saturated color palette and small details like a quick shot of the Statue of Liberty to build a solid visual foundation.

Arguably, the most essential aspect of “Maniac” is its moving emotional center. The metaphysical writing delves into its characters and finds deep problems there. Through its emphasis on their struggles, the show makes the audience root for the same outcome as the show’s scientists: the characters’ growth as human beings. By the series’ end, the audience should be prepared to shed tears.

For all the show’s positive attributes, “Maniac” is not perfect. Specifically, it sometimes relishes too much in developing its unique concept rather than focusing solely on what is necessary to understand the characters’ journeys. Many of these moments are still entertaining — like an over-the-top action scene where Stone shoots bad guys in the face — but they don’t add anything substantive to the film’s character development.

Overall, “Maniac” is a technically masterful, emotional roller coaster ride complemented by fabulous cast performances. The entirety of “Maniac” is available to stream on Netflix.

For all the show’s positive attributes, “Maniac” is not perfect. Specifically, it sometimes relishes too much in developing its unique concept rather than focusing solely on what is necessary to understand the characters’ journeys. Many of these moments are still entertaining — like an over-the-top action scene where Stone shoots bad guys in the face — but they don’t add anything substantive to the film’s character development.

Overall, “Maniac” is a technically masterful, emotional roller coaster ride complemented by fabulous cast performances. The entirety of “Maniac” is available to stream on Netflix.



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