Cary Joji Fukunaga
Two strangers are drawn to a mysterious pharmaceutical trial that will, they're assured, with no complications or side-effects whatsoever, solve all of their problems, permanently. Things do not go as planned.
To be fair when I first saw the trailer for Maniac, I didn’t know what to think of it. Packed with a celebrity casting, Jonah Hill/Emma Stone/Justin Theroux, its trailer came off as quite eccentric and ill-defined narrative wise. However after investing a late night Netflix binge session, I can gladly say it was worth taking the risk. At its most superficial level, Maniac comes off as every story your friend has told you about when persuading you about ‘how amazing it is’ to take LSD. At its deepest, Maniac is an exposition of emotional trauma and how, in the end, we are all just trying to make sense of the world. Our escapism from reality and immersion into our fantasies tells us something more profound about who we really are, specifically the fantasies we try to escape to.
Maniac takes place in a sort of futuristic 80s mash-up, with robotic pooper-scoopers and super computers but not advanced enough that everyone is still using their old Nan’s Fat TV and floppy disks. In it Emma Stone tells of the life she lived had she never flown to LA and never met Ryan Gosling of La La Land, one of depression and drug-addiction after a troubled family history. On the other hand, Jonah Hill never became the funny guy in SuperBad, never joined 21 Jump Street, and instead suffered from paranoid schizophrenia in a suffocating family complex. Together, they seek to embark on a revolutionary new drug trial that guarantees ‘pure happiness’ through the use of psychedelic drugs. Maniac features a lot of social commentary: some of it interesting, some of it makes you sleep. We see the recycled dystopia of capitalism on steroids where ads are anywhere and everywhere, where friends are commodifiable, where you can scrub your criminal record. Yet through a slow build-up, Maniac fleshes out its most impeccable social commentary: about how none of us really have the world figured out. How we find closure not in pretending traumatic events never happening but in coming to terms with that fact and moving forward. As to how we come to terms and move forward, Maniac frustratingly never takes a position. It both glorifies and criticizes the use of psychedelics as an alternative to conventional therapy, never really fully condemning one or the other. Perhaps this reiterates the central message of no one really having the world figured out and just trying to do the best one can in managing their life, but it stops short of greatness.
To carry this story forward, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill give great performances as their dysfunctional selves. Their imperfections bounce off each other well to create an interesting chemistry. As to the supporting cast, Justin Theroux chips in a spicy yet weirdly eccentric and sexualized character. However, everyone else is ultimately forgettable.
Aside from a binge-worthy story, Maniac is filmed beautifully. The combination of its various production designs, whether it be the Tolkien grasslands, WW2 Germany, or the 80’s Bronx, Maniac succeeds in building our protagonist’s fantasies impeccably. This with the combination of a touching score and cinematography makes Maniac a visual art to admire episode to episode, even if the story falters at points.
To sum up Maniac, it’s the trip without the LSD. Peaking through the lives of our two protagonists, specifically the construction of their minds and how they process and deal with traumatic events and regrets, one starts to look inward. Maniac may end up leaving you with more questions than answers, but for once I can say this is a trip worth having.
- Jonah Hill and Emma Stone
- Faltering Plot