Created by: Cary Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville
Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi
Review by: Zach Owens
Cary Fukunaga’s “Maniac” is the latest in a long line of Netflix TV series successes. It’s a surreal, retro-futuristic, sci-fi love story that takes a lot of cues from a lot of films and one novel in particular. There’s also enough intriguing twists and clever thematic elements to keep fans theorizing long after the last episode.
Like “Inception” and “The Matrix,” the characters spend most of the series jumping in and out of dream worlds that resemble elaborate alternate realities. Like “Cloud Atlas,” the characters play very different versions of themselves existing in alternate time periods, but everything from each period is interconnected. And like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” there’s a strange procedure at play that’s supposed to fix whatever issues are plaguing these character’s minds. Yet no matter how many dreams or alternate realities the two leads are subjected to, they always seem to find their way back to each other – as if the forces of the universe want them to be together. And like “2001: A Space Odyssey” there’s an artificially intelligent computer that plays an important part in the events for good or for ill.
I’m sure there are even more inspirational connections to be made if one would care to look for them. Yet I don’t point them out to criticize Fukunaga’s lack of creativity. In fact, quite the opposite. “Maniac” does enough interesting things with its many inspirations that it never feels like it’s ripping them off.
As the late cinema studies professor and book critic Brian Stonehill once wisely said of the great French director Francois Truffaut, “apprentices must be allowed to mimic their masters, for creativity begins in imitation.” The imitations here serve as jumping off points to more interesting lines of action and deeper understandings of what become very well fleshed out characters by the end of the series.
“Maniac” is, at its heart, a quirky romance if we strip away all the complexities. And like most quirky romances, the leads are from mostly broken families. They’re in desperate need of some miraculous soul who understands them and, more importantly, is patient enough to put up with their various quirks and character flaws.
Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) is the black sheep of a very successful family, and he may or may not have schizophrenia and frequent visits from an imaginary brother.
Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) is a loner and a drug addict dealing with the emotionally traumatic loss of her sister.
Jonah Hill is clearly playing against type, though his comedic chops become useful in later scenes. Hill has matured into a fantastic actor who is just at home in the latest broad comedy as he is in Scorsese’s latest Oscar hopeful. Initially I worried the role would be little more than another bland, straight-laced, indie rom-com male lead, but Hill manages to maintain the sense of a man barely holding back the intense emotions constantly threatening to burst through his unconvincing veneer of control. It’s the role so many indie dramas are aiming for and so rarely pull off.
Emma Stone, whose dramatic acting chops have already been confirmed by Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta Award wins and nominations, is just as fantastic here as you’d expect her to be. Unlike Owen, Annie isn’t struggling to hide her intense emotional pain on the surface. She’s gotten too good at it, to the point where she may not even want to fix it.
Nevertheless she finds herself wrapped up in this bizarre situation and it’s her strength that allows her to take the lead in helping herself and Owen get through it. But because Fukunaga remains dedicated to dealing with both of these character’s arcs, he successfully avoids turning Annie into the manic pixie dream girl trope that has plagued so many lesser romantic comedies.
Both Annie and Owen end up joining a strange pharmaceutical trial that claims to be able to cure them of all their issues, whatever they may be. The procedure involves putting people into a deep sleep where they can live out their fantasies. The theory behind the therapy being that our own fantasies are such an exhilarating escape that they allow us to be what we wish we were but could never become in the real world. Becoming what we wish we were in a fantasy will teach us how to live better more successful lives in the real world, and even escape the sadness the real world has subjected us to.
This is where Fukunaga begins proving himself to be a master of world building. The world of “Maniac” is every bit as fascinating as its central characters. This is a world whose futuristic technology is both more advanced than what we have today and yet looks as though it were designed in the 1980’s. There’s even an introductory video played at the beginning of the experiment that looks like a commercial made in the 80’s. Every computer monitor and TV is a 4:3 aspect ratio tube TV, and the conference room/dining area looks like it belongs in one of the “Alien” movies. Later, one of the dream sequences actually takes place in the 80’s.
Better yet, Fukunaga avoids making the people running the pharmaceutical experiment one-note villains. In fact he pays them as much attention as the leads, and these regrettable people end up just as deserving of our empathy as a result.
The main character behind this scientific experiment is Dr. James K. Mantleray, played by Justin Theroux in a role that plays against his pretty-boy looks and really lets him sink his teeth into. Mantleray is the scientist who invented the biotech used in the experiment, but he has so many personal issues that he was removed from the project until circumstances force him to return.
Dr. Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), Mantleray’s ex-lover, runs the program and is the only character capable of keeping their cool despite the enormous amount of pressure she’s under to keep the experiment from flying off the rails – which it threatens to do and nearly every turn.
Sally Field is also on hand, showing up part way through the series, as a famous therapist and the mother of Dr. Mantleray. Her character adds to the humor of the situation and provides a lot of background information for Dr. Mantleray in ways that simultaneously explain his mental and emotional state and undermine his scientific genius and authority over the project.
Theroux’s Dr. Mantleray is easily the most over-the-top character in the show and the comedic goings on behind the scenes of this experiment are the comic relief to Annie and Owen’s more dramatic character arcs. Yet they get to have their fun as well during the show’s many dream sequences.
It’s those dreams that offer the most intriguing theories to explore.
It doesn’t take much of an eagle eye to see that Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” is just about everywhere in this show. Annie is seen toting around a copy of the book always hoping to give it a read. And the story of Don Quixote becomes a bit of intertextuality within the show. In fact, having a bit of an understanding of that story becomes essential to understand what Fukunaga is doing here.
Don Quixote involves a man who reads so many romance stories that he loses his sanity to the point of not being able to see the world as it is and prefers instead to live inside his own fantasy world where he is a hero restoring chivalry to the world. Which makes Annie’s statement that she plans to read the book, “because healthy people read books,” a line full of comedic irony.
Much like Don Quixote, Owen struggles to differentiate between the real world and his fantasies, whether he’s dreaming or not, and he constantly has delusions that he is on a mission to save the world.
But to take the intertextuality even further, the novel has a scene in which Don Quixote attacks a bunch of windmills because he thinks they’re giants. The second episode of “Maniac” is called “Windmills” and briefly has Annie and her sister passing by windmills during one of Annie’s dreams. And during another dream sequence, Owen ends up becoming a giant.
Yet the idea of fantasies and escapes from reality aren’t exclusive to the pharmaceutical experiment. The real world is full of other services that provide something of an escape for people. One of the services is called “Friend Proxy,” a service that literally let’s people pay other people to pretend to be their friend for a short amount of time.
Another method of escape is one Annie’s father uses. It’s a machine called “A-Void,” that essentially lets a person go into hibernation.
Numerous think pieces could be written about the role of advertising and isolation in the world Fukunaga created here. Advertisements are everywhere and even the beds act like isolation chambers with their pull out drawer designs. But more interesting is the theme that the world has become so phony with its fake relationships and constant advertisements, it’s easy for these characters to feel alienated. Thus the experiment and Annie and Owen’s constant interactions in the dreams does indeed become something of a cure if only because it introduces them to each other. How else is one to meet and form a genuine relationship with someone in this world? Or is it all just a fantasy?
This is, I’m sure, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the themes running through the series. And catching all the little clues and references Fukunaga sprinkled throughout that connect each of the dreams with reality are the sort of thing that will reward repeat viewings.
The spectacular variation of set pieces, wardrobe and fantastical scenarios demos extremely well in the trailer format, but “Maniac” is the rarity that actually earns it.
As for Cary Fukunaga, he’s the clever mind that directed and had a hand in creating this series, inspired by the Norwegian TV series of the same name. “Maniac,” like all of Fukunaga’s projects, is stylish, well produced, well acted and a leap in a vastly different direction. Perhaps his work is also an attempt to live in the wild fantasies he wishes to use to cure himself.
Though he has quickly become Netflix’s darling, his fantastic 2015 war drama “Beasts of No Nation” (Netflix’s first original film) was snubbed at both the Oscars and most of the big name theater chains due to Netflix’s business practice of distributing their content simultaneously online and in theaters (a violation of the 90-day window of theater exclusivity). Nevertheless, thanks to the notoriety earned from his work with Netflix, Fukunaga has been entrusted with the 25th entry in the James Bond series. It won’t be on Netflix, so good luck keeping it out of theaters.