Two lonely people, both half-destroyed. Yes, two lonely, addled people searching for peace, and escape from the destructiveness of the past. They intersect, connecting in a way that seems haphazard but fated.
That’s the gist of Maniac (streaming on Netflix), but then it isn’t the gist, really. The gist is an often psychotropic, humorous and reckless trip into the tumult, wonder, beauty and terrors of modern life. And yet, is it “modern” in that it is contemporary? Not exactly, it’s a version of the 1980s urban life expanded and contorted into something else.
Maniac is the most genuinely ambitious Netflix production in ages. It aims to be thoughtful yet entertaining, brilliantly imaginative yet bleakly comic. It achieves a lot of that – it’s smart, wry, witty and utterly self-assured. What it’s about is the lengths we go to in order to cure what hurts us deeply.
It is star-studded, too, featuring sublime performances from Emma Stone, Jonah Hill and Justin Theroux. Hill plays Owen, who has an ill-defined mental illness that affects no one else in his wealthy Manhattan family (Gabriel Byrne does a nice turn as caring but baffled dad) but Owen believes he sees people, who don’t exist to others, and that his mission is to save the world from something terrible. He becomes part of an experimental drug program, a process that might, if all goes well, make people happy and erase the past difficulties.
Stone is Annie, who forces her way into the same program. Annie is a feisty, troubled figure haunted by a family tragedy, always planning to return to her hometown and never doing it. Broke, literally, and broken inside by trying to suppress hurt and guilt, she’s a fully rounded character, a mess of mundane sadness and thwarted efforts to save herself. Theroux is Dr. Mantleray, the dubious doctor behind the dubious mind-altering drug program. He’s a disturbed individual, too, as are many of his staff, but in a twitchy, funny way. There is also an exquisite performance from Julia Garner (so good in Ozark and The Americans) as Annie’s sister.
A lot of what happens in Maniac amounts to a genuinely emotional human journey toward tranquility, but a journey that transpires in a cascading, psychedelic torrent of the ethereal. The word used most often in reviews of Maniac, to date, is “trippy” and I’m not sure that does it justice. Yes, Annie and Owen are sent on adventures that only exist in their heads, thanks to drugs, but there is something very humane about what is going on. These are people who are self-aware and completely lost.
The series (10 parts) was adapted from a Norwegian original but, it seems, much reimagined in this production. While the original was set inside a psychiatric institution, this is more about the outside world. And what a strange, bewildering but understandable world it is. It’s rather like a no-frills version of now. There are no pop-up ads that follow you around online. Instead there’s a person who follows you around, literally, telling you about things you can buy. Instead of Facebook, there’s Friend Proxy, which involves hiring someone to play the role of a good friend. It’s all both hallucinatory and morbidly funny.
The radical adaptation was done by Patrick Somerville, a producer and writer on HBO’s The Leftovers and the director of Maniac is Cary Fukunaga, who directed the stunning first season of True Detective and the Netflix movie Beasts of No Nation. (He is also the director of the next James Bond movie.) It’s the director who truly flourishes here and Fukunaga’s flair is in high evidence. There is also evidence of literary influences here. You can feel the influence of Thomas Pynchon’s novels and you can sense J.D. Salinger’s work hovering in the background.
There are times when the adventures embraced by Anne and Owen seem ridiculous. There other times when the eye-popping visuals seem unnecessarily fanciful. But there is merit in everything in Maniac. Apart from its sheer, audacious entertainment value, it’s poignant in a bittersweet way. Highly recommended.
Also airing this weekend – Anne with an E (Sunday, CBC, 7 p.m.) returns for a second season and is made even more robust and shrewd by writer Moira Walley-Beckett, who brought new meaning to Anne Shirley in the first, very fine season. Amybeth McNulty remains stellar as the distinctly modern, complicated Anne.