Sunday Times

SE­RIES

‘Ma­niac’ is an un­even mess that never man­ages to bal­ance its ideas with their ex­e­cu­tion, writes

- Tymon Smith Entertainment · Arts · Movies · Psychiatry · Mental Health · Health Conditions · Netflix · New York City · Emma Stone · Game of Thrones · Cary Joji Fukunaga · True Detective · James Bond · Gabriel Byrne · Billy Magnussen · Justin Theroux · Sally Field · Melanie Griffith · Michel Gondry · Spike Jonze · Charlie Kaufman · Stanley Kubrick

Cary Fuku­naga’s ma­ni­a­cal new show

There’s a lot to be ex­pec­tant and ex­cited about when it comes to Net­flix’s lat­est 10-part dystopian se­ries Ma­niac. Con­ceived and di­rected by Cary Fuku­naga (True De­tec­tive, Beasts of No Na­tion and re­cently an­nounced as the next di­rec­tor of James Bond) and nov­el­ist Patrick Somerville, the show is in­spired by a Nor­we­gian se­ries set in a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion. Fuku­naga and Somerville have re­ally only taken the orig­i­nal show’s deal­ing with ideas of men­tal ill­ness and rein­vented the rest to suit their own in­ter­ests in look­ing at philo­soph­i­cal is­sues of how we con­struct the nar­ra­tives that sus­tain our san­ity in in­creas­ingly strange times. Un­for­tu­nately the re­sult is an un­even mess that never man­ages to find a bal­ance be­tween its ideas and their ex­e­cu­tion.

The story takes place in a ver­sion of New York that has echoes of the present day but in­cor­po­rates retro-as­pects of ’80s and ’90s dystopian el­e­ments: peo­ple walk around in a de­sat­u­rated ur­ban land­scape in which ro­bots fol­low dogs to clean up their poop and you can call on the ser­vices of an “ad buddy” to help you pay for things — a ser­vice that costs you the pain of hav­ing to be ac­com­pa­nied by a ’50s-style sales­man who reads you reams of ad­ver­tis­ing in ex­change for the loan.

In this world, Owen Mil­grim is the last son and black sheep of a wealthy fam­ily — still ex­cluded from the fam­ily por­trait and re­quired by the clan to take the fall for some­thing that his father (Gabriel Byrne) as­sures him will ruin them should he fail to step up. Owen pre­vi­ously had a break­down and is a di­ag­nosed schiz­o­phrenic who re­ceives mes­sages from a chip­per imag­i­nary ver­sion of his brother Jed (Billy Mag­nussen) telling him that he is des­tined to save the world. Jed tells Owen that he will meet a part­ner who will as­sist him in his mis­sion.

When Owen signs up for a drug trial in which the com­bi­na­tion of three pills and the most pow­er­ful computer yet de­vel­oped will aim to oblit­er­ate the need for ther­apy and give its sub­jects the gift of eter­nal joy, he meets fel­low guinea pig An­nie Lands­berg (Emma Stone) and be­lieves her to be his part­ner in global sal­va­tion. An­nie has signed up for the trial be­cause she’s ad­dicted to one of the pills used in the test and this is the only way she can score more.

The pro­gramme is run by an earnest, chain-smok­ing sci­en­tist Dr Azumi Fu­jita (Sonoyo Mizuno), her neu­rotic su­per­vi­sor Dr James K. Man­ter­lay (Justin Th­er­oux) and their Kubrick­ian emo­tional su­per­com­puter pro­grammed us­ing el­e­ments of the re­search of Man­ter­lay’s self-help pop-psy­chol­ogy su­per­star and es­tranged mother Greta (Sally Field). It works by plac­ing the sub­jects through a se­ries of dream states and gaug­ing their re­ac­tions on their jour­ney to­wards free­dom from ther­apy.

It’s in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of these var­i­ous dream states that Fuku­naga is given free rein to show off his di­rect­ing skills in a se­ries of al­most self-con­tained tributes to film noir, ’80s Me­lanie Grif­fith-style come­dies and even a Game of Thrones-in­flu­enced world pop­u­lated by elves and ea­gles. It’s also here that the show goes off the rails and be­comes mostly a stylish pas­tiche of ideas and at­mos­phere that draw from the work of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Char­lie Kauf­man, and Stan­ley Kubrick with­out quite achiev­ing Gondry’s play­ful­ness, Kauf­man’s philo­soph­i­cal in­trigue or Kubrick’s men­ace and never sat­is­fac­to­rily man­ag­ing to main­tain a real con­nec­tion be­tween Jonah Hill (as a weird Ice­landic diplo­mat) and Stone’s char­ac­ters’ search for re­demp­tion and the ad­ven­tures they’re thrust into.

While Stone proves her­self ver­sa­tile and em­pa­thetic in a va­ri­ety of roles, Hill is so in­sis­tent on rein­ing in his manic comic per­sona to demon­strate his se­ri­ous act­ing abil­ity that he be­comes a one-di­men­sional sad man with lit­tle depth. The mis­match is in­creas­ingly in­fu­ri­at­ing and is not helped by the ad­di­tion of Th­er­oux’s an­noy­ingly over­the-top Dr Strangelov­e an­tics in the other part of the story in­volv­ing his re­la­tion­ships with the computer, his as­sis­tant and his mother. Even the in­clu­sion of Sally Field can’t make Ma­niac come to­gether with suf­fi­cient dra­matic and emo­tional co­her­ence.

By the time the sen­ti­men­tal con­clu­sion works it­self out over the course of the fi­nal two episodes, it mostly amounts to an en­er­getic jum­bling to­gether of sly ref­er­ences rather than a sat­is­fac­to­rily in­tel­li­gencechal­leng­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the very real and se­ri­ous ques­tions raised by men­tal ill­ness.

It’s also dis­ap­point­ing, in light of the ob­vi­ous tal­ents of its cre­ators and cast, that Ma­niac is ul­ti­mately an empty ex­er­cise that doesn’t achieve the pro­gramme’s in­ten­tion of cre­at­ing eter­nal joy but rather only suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing an­noy­ance and dis­ap­point­ment of so many un­ful­filled ex­pec­ta­tions.

IT LOOKS AT PHILO­SOPH­I­CAL IS­SUES OF

HOW WE CON­STRUCT THE NAR­RA­TIVES THAT SUS­TAIN OUR SAN­ITY IN STRANGE TIMES

Ma­niac is stream­ing on Net­flix.

 ?? Pic­ture: Net­flix ?? Emma Stone as a drug ad­dict and Jonah Hill as a weird Ice­landic diplo­mat with a squeaky voice take up arms.
Pic­ture: Net­flix Emma Stone as a drug ad­dict and Jonah Hill as a weird Ice­landic diplo­mat with a squeaky voice take up arms.

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