“Maniac”, the new American drama miniseries showing on Netflix, is set in a world and time with strong echoes of our own. Within this ten-part epic, creator Patrick Somerville and director Cary Joji Fukunaga embark on a challenging project to explore the concept of psychological healing of those whose minds have suffered traumatic damage. This they largely achieve, but with a variable amount of success.
The pathology of loneliness
For their own different and compelling reasons, two strangers volunteer for the late phases of a mysterious drug trial. Aimless, discontented and drug-addicted Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) is obsessive about broken relationships with her mother and sister, while Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) has endured a lifelong struggle with a controversial diagnosis which labels him a paranoid schizophrenic. The clinical trial employs a radical treatment which claims to totally cure all kinds of maladies of the mind.
Annie and Owen are told the three-day experiment will solve all their problems – permanently, and without any complications or side effects. But, as you’ve guessed, that’s not how things turn out. And those who know a little about the history of psychology may also have noticed how very close the names Migrim and Landsberg are to real-life psychological researchers once involved in controversial psychological experiments of their own.
A mind-bending journey
Naturally, the drugs don’t work as expected but instead take the subjects on a surreal exploration of seemingly random dreamscapes. These appear to constantly reframe the personal struggles of Annie and Owen in a whole series of increasingly weird, whacky and hard-to anticipate contexts.
Almost from the outset, it’s clear those in charge of the trial can hardly be said to exert much control or positive influence. There’s Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), the lead scientist and mastermind behind the project, assisted by Dr. Fujita, who was once Manterlay’s lover. Somewhat dysfunctional himself, Manterlay also has a broken relationship with his psychologist mother, Dr. Greta Manterlay (played by Sally Field). And then there’s GRTA, the supercomputer which controls the project. This malfunctional AI artefact, which is named after Greta Manterlay and mimics her character, is not only directing the healing but also itself mourning the loss of a doctor with whom ‘she’ had enjoyed a serious romantic attachment. All of which suggests that, as well as playing entertaining casino games, we might one day use our clicks to heal our minds.
An assured touch
Faced with such a disjunct melange of stories, genres and influences, a lesser director could easily have become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the ambitious narrative. Yet, ably supported by Hill and Stone’s fluent and adaptable performances, Fukunaga’s visual dream worlds are convincingly portrayed, sometimes horrifying, and often great fun. However, the cumulative effect of seemingly endless and intricate twists and turns tends to leave the audience relatively indifferent to the progress and evolution of the main plotline.
This film’s focus on the psychology of the mind – still a dark, complex and relatively uncharted area – drug addiction, pharmaceutical drug treatments and artificial intelligence gives this work broad appeal and a high contemporary relevance. And when “Maniac” excels it is beautiful and fascinating; but when it falls below such standards there can be moments of boredom and confusion.