If Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had their DNA fused and then artificially inseminated into Brazil, the baby born would look something like Maniac, the 10-part limited series by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the Emmy-winning director of True Detective and the just-anointed helmer for the next James Bond movie.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, last seen together in the raunch-com Superbad, play two strangers, Annie and Owen, with mental issues — the former is still reeling from a family tragedy, the latter is a schizophrenic — in a radical pharmaceutical treatment that promises “to repair anything about the mind”.
But because it’s an experiment, there may be unknown serious side effects.Based on a 2014 Norwegian series of the same name, the show is set in “a world somewhat like our world, in a time quite similar to our time,” where 1980s technology — like dot matrix printers and CRT computer monitors — still reigns supreme. In this world, there’s not one, but two Statues of Liberty, with the second one suitably called The Statue of Extra Liberty.
The aforementioned drug trial uses a super AI computer that generates assorted fantasy arenas into the participants’ heads, so that they can confront and resolve their problems. Easy peasy.
Not quite. Apparently, the supercomputer is susceptible to mood swings. Turns out the inventor (Justin Theroux, hamming it up as the mad scientist) built the machine in his mother’s (the fabulous Sally Field) image and memory, and some of his residual mummy issues may have infected the software.
I’m not sure how the science works, so maybe you should run the technobabble and highfalutin lingo by your psychiatrist ̕cos I don’t want to embarrass myself here trying to explain them. But the whole idea of the experiment is an excuse for the cast to have a blast with different characters, environments, get-ups and genres.
Some dreamscapes work better than others. One amusing Coen Brothers-esque scenario sees Annie and Owen, whose memories are inexplicably linked during the trial, plot to free a lemur stolen by animal traffickers. Not as fun, though, is a fantasy that plays like an outtake from The Sopranos, replete one gruesome torture sequence, and a Middle Earth-themed illusion is epic but light on excitement.
While the visuals are playful and trippy and the actors are game (Stone tackles her role with wit and gusto; Hill downplays his usual shouty, hyperactive persona and spends much of the screen-time in a stupor), the story never really engages emotionally. Strange, that. You just wish there was more meat to the lunacy.
There are other highlights besides the fantasy sequences. In Maniac's retro universe, Facebook doesn’t exist! But there's Friend Proxy, a service where you hire someone to be your stand-in buddy you’re unable to meet in real life.
And if you’re unable to afford rent or a meal, you can sign up for Ad Buddies, a live-action version of pop-up ads, a service that settles your payment just as long as you allowed a 'human advert' to follow you.
Fukunaga, who developed Maniac with novelist Patrick Somerville, said he wanted to do the show because “he wanted to play around with lighter stories” especially after venturing into the hearts of darkness in True Detective and Beasts of No Nation. So, in a way, it’s therapy for Fukunaga. Meta, right?
Look out for a badass shoot-out in Ep 9, which looks like it’s done in one take, that will reassure everyone that James Bond is in good hands.
Watch it on: Netflix