Maniac surprises with exciting plot
Watching Netflix’s new mini-series, Maniac—written and directed by Patrick Somerville—is like going out with that super cute, manic, artsy girl you’re inexplicably attracted to: confusing but exciting, leaving you wondering if you just experienced something profound you don’t yet understand, or if you were just beguiled by the novelty of the idea of her.
This show is just all over the place. I’m not even sure what genre I would put this in. It’s kind of a romcom wrapped in a dystopian sci-fi wrapped in an enigma with every imaginable genre haphazardly thrown in there. If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s somewhat like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—which, on a side note, is a must-watch—with the aesthetics of Wes Anderson.
The story follows Owen Milgram, played by Jonah Hill, who comes from a family of uber-rich aristocrats. His brother—next in line to inherit the family business—is involved in a salacious sex scandal, and Owen is expected to provide a false alibi for his brother to get him off the hook.
The other main character is Annie, played by Emma Stone. Her story focuses on her depression following a tragedy involving her sister. Annie doesn’t know how to deal with the extremely traumatic experience, and punishes herself by reliving the ordeal via a mysterious experimental drug.
The first two episodes pretty much serve as a prologue for the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their inner demons. The real story doesn’t start until we see them both recruited for a psychological experiment which aims to solve all mental health problems through a synthesis of neurochemistry, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science. As the two undergo their therapy, we see them relive their most traumatic experiences, and go through multiple Inception-esque drug-induced dreams.
I’m not 100 percent sold on a lot of the aspects of this series, but the thing I know I loved was the setting. The series takes place in a retro-futuristic New York City. By that, I mean it’s got vaporwave ’80s style Japanese aesthetics, as well as technology which far surpasses our own. So you’ll see little robots roaming around the streets of New York, fully immersive VR rigs which run off floppy disks, and an empathetic artificial intelligence represented as a series of analog lights.
There are also a lot of dystopian motifs which are clever jabs at our own society. For example, there’s a company which will cover the cost of small things like train rides or cigarettes after you listen to one of their “Ad Buddies” advertise various services and products. “Friend Proxies” are actors who you can pay to follow a script and act like a friend of your own design. Owen even considers working for a service which offers widows replacement father figures.
The element of drug-induced dreams adds even more interesting plots and settings, from a quest to steal back a lemur in Rhode Island in the ’80s, to a James Bond-esque caper to steal the lost chapter of Don Quixote during a ’40s era séance party, to a quest to heal a cursed elven princess. The exciting part of the show is that, with each episode, you have no idea what you’re gonna get.
I wish I could say that this show was perfect, but it was just plain confusing at points. Somerville might be suffering from directorial mania, because almost all his decisions seemed random, just to be quirky. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone don’t make sense at all. They spend the entire show working together for seemingly no reason. The whole series follows their romantic relationship, and at the end I found myself asking, “Why do these people even care about each other?”
It was so confusing to me when, after all this posturing and setting up interesting complex questions about reality, sentience, and mental health, the series just devolved into this sentimental romcom with slapstick comedy, a happy ending, and a pathetic “hero” saving his love interest, and eventually coming together to address their depression.
Even with all my concerns about the series, I won’t lie to you, I binge-watched it in one sitting. Despite my concerns about the logic behind some of the character’s decisions, the admittedly disjointed intentions of the film, and the confusingly sentimental ending, I would still recommend you give it a shot. You might just find that this manic, confusing, disjointed thrill ride was really fun.