Oct 30

“Maniac”: Not-Real Drugs to Cure Mental Illness

If you like quirky fantastical stories that happen to involve the possibility of curing mental illness, Netflix’s Maniac might be for you. As summarized by Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe:

Directed and co-written by the visionary Cary Joji Fukunaga (‘True Detective,’ the next Bond movie), it follows two troubled people, played by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, who take part in a pharmaceutical drug trial led by Justin Theroux’s cutting-edge doctor. She’s a depressed, lonely soul, and he’s the son of wealthy New Yorkers whose vivid hallucinations leave even us, the viewers, unsure of what is real. Is the drug trial actually occurring, or is it just another one of his delusions?

Watch the trailer here:

The Pharmaceutical Experiment

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com: It “attempts to do what therapy so often cannot—pull apart the issues that define and confine them. And they have some issues.”

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter, says “the end goal is to erase things like mental illness and unhappy memories, and rewire patients’ brains with three pills (labeled ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’).”

Willa Paskin, Slate: “It’s therapy in ingestible form, with each pill resulting in a vivid genre-based delusion. Annie and Owen find themselves inexplicably linked as they make their way through personalized drug trips that resemble an ’80s action movie.”

Further Plot and Characterization

Episodes of this 10-part mini-series eventually, says Tallerico, “explore the issues at the core of Annie and Owen’s psychological problems with different characters, settings, and tones.”

In one episode, Owen and Annie are an ‘80s Long Island couple trying to steal a lemur with a storytelling style reminiscent of the Coen brothers. In the next, they’re attending a séance in the ‘40s, replicating the playful dialogue and character beats of a classic mystery film. And yet each of these ‘short films within a show’ reflect themes of the real Owen and Annie, whether they be family problems, low self-worth, distrust, or a growing sense that maybe these two were meant for each other for some reason. Even Sally Field appears as, well, you’ll have to wait and see.

Well, you don’t really have to wait at all if you want a little spoiler: she plays Dr. Manterlay’s mom, a pop psychologist/author. And those two have issues too.

Prominent Themes

Troy Patterson, New Yorker: “At once a self-help drama about personal faith and a wry metaphysical mind-bender, ‘Maniac’ is about world-building—about giving an inner life a semblance of coherent narrative, about the stories we tell ourselves in order to get by.”

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter: “There are core existential themes…mental illness, unhappiness, loneliness, the constraints of family and the notion of the pursuit of happiness as an illusion — that, depending on your response, are either adequately and entertainingly mined or get a little lost under the impressive visual mayhem on the surface.”

Willa Paskin, Slate: “…ultimately about how the only real cure for endemic loneliness, alienation, and sadness is time, effort, and—above all—friendship. For better and worse, it’s like a psychedelic Hallmark card: gorgeous, clever, weird, but maybe you’ve heard the sentiment before.”

Selected Reviews

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter: “Your results may vary depending on how important it is to you to have mental illness, grief, unhappiness and other important Big Ideas fully explored via characters you come to love.”

Allison Keene, Collider: “When Maniac is good, it’s funny, affecting, and fascinating; when it’s not good, it’s like having a conversation with a student in a Psych 101 class who wants to tell you about a dream they had last night and what it might mean.”

James Poniewozic, New York Times: “In an age of desiccated puzzle-stories, ‘Maniac’ puts emotion first, even at the risk of sentimentality. It’s a heart-shaped Rubik’s Cube, a funny, consistently surprising fable of broken machines trying to reassemble themselves.”