Right up front in the new Netflix’s show Maniac, someone says, “The only question that matters is, do you know what’s real?” And that’s when things get weird.
Streaming now, the 10-episode series stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, last seen on screen together in the raucous teen comedy Superbad. Maniac is certainly very funny. But mostly it’s just really weird, and brilliantly so.
Hill plays the downtrodden and deadpan Owen, living in an off-brand present day and struggling to escape both his wealthy family and his own hallucinatory idiosyncrasies. When he isn’t obsessing over his sister-in-law or fellow drug tester Stone, he’s trying to avoid seeing an imaginary secret agent who keeps passing on cryptic instructions.
Hill’s somnolent character, who barely lifts his eyes to meet the camera or raises his voice above a mumble, is kind of hard to root for. But we get the sense this mentally troubled man might be the sanest guy in the mixed-up mashup of past and future that passes for Maniac’s reality.
Sleepwalking into a high-tech pharmaceutical trial, Owen meets Stone’s luminous-eyed addict Annie. It’d be reaching for a cute phrase to describe her as Maniac’s pixie dream girl, even if the pair do find themselves star-crossed across various dream worlds and catalysing each other’s catastrophic backstories.
Stone brings real grounded emotion to her character’s loss, layered with a succession of nuanced performances as she inhabits different versions of the character.
Tripping through mini-narratives that range from Coenesque to Scorsese-style, from Kubrick to John Wick in a matter of moments, they face a trial where finding happiness is as simple as taking drugs A, B and C.
On broadcast TV, these illusory interludes are the sort of thing that would be introduced from the get-go, but in the relaxed plotting of a Netflix production they roll around a few episodes in. That’s a bit of a clunky shift, and inevitably some of these visionary vignettes are more fun than others. Mostly, though, Stone carries things with her charming modulations, while Hill saves his best for episode 9. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga — ready to take the helm of the— keeps a deft grasp on the interweaving strands and styles.
A bit like mind-bending hit Westworld, the show cuts between fantasy realm and the “real world” voyeurism of the monitoring scientists. The experiment is masterminded by Justin Theroux’s breathily expressionistic mad scientist, putting the fun in fungible — it means “interchangeable” or “adaptable” — as he brings his own maternal mania to the research.
Maniac also calls to mind the originalwith its retro-futuristic aesthetic: All chunky computer terminals and chattering dot matrix printers and flashing walls of LEDs, it revels in the weirdly dated look of old sci-fi. Rainbow colours streak brutalist concrete, while dog-eared robots skitter across the sidewalk and characters smoke up a storm, giving the whole thing an oddly old-fashioned feel.
It’s kind of like watching Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner well after the years they were supposed to be set, a version of the future that got forked somewhere way in the past.
This off-kilter setting filled with absurdist apparatus puts us in the sort-of sci-fi territory of Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut. Or, if you want an easier reference, let’s say it’s like a Black Mirror that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself. It’s very, of course, with isolation, loneliness and loss among the themes. But, y’know, funny.
It’s also a lot like, another recent show that sees a mentally troubled man wrestling with reality while fixating on a beautiful blonde. While filled with patterns and coincidences and visual panache, Maniac isn’t as dizzying dense as Legion — Legion Lite, perhaps.
Ultimately, Maniac doesn’t delve as deep into its weirdness as it initially promises, drawing back from the hallucinatory brink for a fairly conventional resolution. Still, it’s easily one of the freshest, coolest and most satisfying shows to come from Netflix. Assured, amusing and genuinely heartfelt, Maniac is weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird.
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