Netflix's Maniac Review

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Curiously compelling

by Casimir Harlow Sep 23, 2018 at 3:02 PM

  • True Detective's Cary Fukunaga deliver's Netflix's latest Black Mirror-esque offbeat sci-fi drama, Maniac.

    Recently announced as the replacement director for Danny Boyle on the long-gestating 25th Bond film, Cary Joji Fukunaga is a writer/director who has been worth paying attention to ever since his debut Sin Nombre. His sophomore effort, Jane Eyre, was a potent adaptation, whilst his first Netflix project, Beasts of No Nation, was certainly impressive by Netflix standards. However it's his HBO limited series, True Detective that has stood out above all else so far, an unmissable, atypical crime thriller that demands your attention.

    His latest sci-fi twinged project, Maniac - also done for Netflix - is a colourful new entry, shot through with the auteur's style, with Fukunaga eliciting some surprising transformations and performances out of his lead cast (not wholly unlike what he put McConaughey and Harrelson through for True Detective). Certainly it's more of an acquired taste this time around, with the offbeat comedy-laced psychological drama set against a strange light sci-fi backdrop for its opening couple of episodes, before going full Quantum Leap, enjoying 80s vibes a la Stranger Things and G.L.O.W. and even 30s period glitz in its trip across the ages.

    It's an acquired taste, with the offbeat comedy-laced psychological drama set against a strange light sci-fi backdrop.

    The story takes its time setting the scene, with two clear players in this tale - Jonah Hill's Owen Milgrim and Emma Stone's Annie Landsberg. Two things tie them together - they have both had psychotic breaks, and they both end up on the same unconventional pharmaceutical drug trial.

    After the first couple of scene-setting episodes, the story takes an unusual twist, as the series explores the effects of the test drug, which stimulate lucid - and sometimes shared - hallucinations that take Owen and Annie to the places of their wildest dreams.

    After its slow start - undoubtedly the first couple of scene-setting episodes may turn off some viewers - things get truly crazy, with the subsequent few episodes dedicated to curious tales which are like an unholy blend of American Psycho, Inception and Quantum Leap that trips around eras and environments reminiscent of everything from The Great Gatsby to Game of Thrones to Goodfellas, and beyond.

    The blend of illusion and reality is really quite eclectic. Whilst it's relatively clear what the dream sequences are, they are so well done that they make you actually question what you saw in the first couple of episodes. Their twisted little tales which follow the baffling adventures of the two lead characters are utterly, and mind-bogglingly, compelling in a what-the-hell-is-going-on kind of way. Better still - they are strangely connected - not just to the existing memories and mental scars of the two subjects, but also to each individual voyage, with the characters curiously informed by their last 'leap'. And in the background you have a bunch of scientists studying the experiment, worrying that the AI in charge of dosage and monitoring may be going a little awry.

    Although there is a comedy-of-errors vibe, Maniac is - perhaps as the title might success - shot through with dark undertones.

    Maniac is definitely an acquired taste - the American Psycho / Inception / Quantum Leap blend is hardly an easy fit, and is about as odd a match as some of Fukunaga's score choices to back the scenes. Performances are tremendous - Hill sporting his new young Sandler look, and Stone at her manic best, both happily costume-changing their way through the colourful wardrobe that's required for such an audacious series - and The Leftovers mainstay Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno (from Ex Machina and Annihilation) offering solid support as the scientists, with each different 'time zone', and reality itself, affording us a number of guest stars, including Gabriel Byrne (Hereditary), Sally Field (Brothers & Sisters) and Billy Magnussen (Game Night) to name but a few. You'll be spotting familiar faces throughout.

    Although there is a comedy-of-errors vibe, Maniac is - perhaps as the title might suggest - shot through with dark undertones, leaving you curious as to where it will go, but also unsurprised when it takes some Twilight Zone / Black Mirror-esque turns along the way. If you watch the first 3-4 episodes and don't find any connection then that's perfectly understandable - this one was always going to be marmite - but those who go along for the whole crazy, visually opulent, Dolby Vision-enhanced, beautifully-scored, superbly-acted psychological mind-trip may find the experience really quite special.

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