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.”

Dec 06

Mary Todd Lincoln: Theories About Mary’s Madness

“All anyone will remember about me was that I was crazy and ruined your happiness.” Mary Todd Lincoln to husband Abe, in the film Lincoln


Steven Spielberg‘s Lincolnwith script by Tony Kushner, who based it partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivalschronicles the President’s efforts in the mid-1860’s Civil War period to abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment. In the process, we’re let in a bit on the marital dynamics between him and Mary.

While Abe’s known struggles with bouts of melancholy aren’t emphasized, Daniel Day-Lewis‘s impressive portrayal includes one of his main coping mechanisms, a tendency to tell humorous stories in the midst of troubling matters.

And although wife Mary (Sally Field) isn’t a major focus, her role is strong and important nevertheless. Andrew O’HehirSalon, states that:

…Kushner presents her, in just two major scenes, as a woman of tremendous agony and pathos, sublimating all her ambition and desire into her husband and her sons. In our own age, Mary Lincoln could have been a politician herself, or almost anything else she could imagine; in Field’s ferocious portrayal, she is a feminist hero many decades before the advent of feminism, who made her own indelible contribution to American history.

Mary’s mental health issues are made blatant. From Drew Taylor, Indiewire: “If Lincoln has a foil, it’s not the Democrats who wanted to callously shoot down the Amendment, but rather his wife…a woman still mourning the loss of their young son and whose mental instability was the source of much speculation and gossip.”

Her personal problems, indeed, were significant, reportedly including depression, migraines, and significant grief.


Historian Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007) and the recent Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History, summarizes pertinent historical details (New York Times) about her mental health, some of which is reflected in the film:

Mary Lincoln could be cheerful, graceful and loving, but also vain, arrogant, and jealous. This dichotomy won her many enemies. She is now believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, the symptoms of which were evident in her early life and worsened over time. During the White House years she suffered from anxiety, paranoia, narcissism, mood swings and depression, and in later years her symptoms grew to include hallucinations and delusions. Mary’s mood swings and depression intensified in 1862, after the Lincolns’ 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever. Her grief was so pronounced that her husband actually warned her that if she did not overcome it, she would be driven mad and that he would be forced to commit her to an asylum.

In addition to the deaths of two sons and being reviled by many, stressors affecting Mary included a serious head injury from a carriage accident and the loss of three half-brothers and a brother-in-law to the war.

Ultimately, of course, in 1865 her husband was killed while she sat beside him at the theater. How much pressure did this add to her already burdened and troubled psyche?

Well beyond the time frame of the movie, remaining son Robert eventually believed his mother was so out of touch with reality as to be unable to handle her own affairs. It was 10 years after Abe Lincoln’s death that Robert petitioned to have Mary involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

By court order, Mary was confined for several months to Bellevue Sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois. Her sanity status was given back to her, however, in 1876 when a different jury decided in her favor.


When Mary Todd Lincoln died from a stroke in 1882, she had been living with serious physical deterioration that might have been caused by diabetes—though an autopsy found that she had a brain tumor as well. Could this have been the cause of her psychotic symptoms?

Or was it syphilis, as has been suggested by some? Another question unlikely to ever be answered.