REVIEW: Where the ‘What If’ game falls flat: Maniac

Fran Partlett, Film Analyst

If you’ve ever seen World on a Wire, you’ve seen Maniac.


Netflix’s highly anticipated series, loosely based on Espen Lervaag’s Norweigan show of the same name, has plenty of nods to pre-existing work. Designer Alex DiGerlando draws on Kubrick-ian timelessness, integrating sterile futurism with vintage 8-bit computer architecture.


We could very easily mistake Owen’s micro-apartment for Korben Dallas’ apartment in Fifth Element (if it weren’t for the significant lack of a particular white cat). The ‘Ad Buddy’ and ‘Friend Proxy’ services of this dystopian-esque future hark back to Total Recall’s convoluted world-building.


Cary Fukanaga takes us to an alternate version of New York in which no one ever said: “Hey, d’you think this computer needs pimping out?” Here we meet Owen Milgrim, the diagnosed schizophrenic son of a family that is wealthy and manipulative in equal, colossal measure, portrayed by Jonah Hill in his most niche performance since Moneyball.


Opposite Owen is Emma Stone’s character Annie Landbergh, a drug addict haunted by her sister’s death, for which she claims responsibility.


Owen and Annie enroll  onto an experimental drug trial at Neberdine Biotech in which they are administered three drugs (aptly named ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’) that are the supposed steps towards complete mental clarity.


In the hopes that the outcome of the trial transpires to be sweeter than the reality in which they’re living, Owen and Annie are conducted through a myriad of cerebral realities in orchestral tango with each other, fusing their hallucinations everywhere from 40’s film-noir to 80’s comedy-farce.


Flexibly subtle, Jonah Hill, Sally Field and Sonoya Mizuno add a gently mature pace to the series that is much needed amidst the nearly inaccessible metaphors that Fukanaga litters in the monochromatic landscape. I find that as long as one of these actors inhabits the screen, I am gingerly engrossed.


Fukanaga builds an intricate universe in which everything is foreshadowed with repetitive prop placement and allegorical design. However, what holds this series back is its hit-and-miss narrative. There is so much backstory to each character that it becomes impossible to pad everything out, making it redundant in the face of the overarching plot.


The shame in this is that it detracts from the element of play in each vignette, as we are distracted by a shoots-and-ladders mode of character-building (bringing a character into heightened focus, then letting them fall down in the hierarchy of importance in favor  of another player).


While some might dub Maniac ‘eccentric’, I find the scrabble to be ‘meta’ incredibly tedious. Its inability to settle, a reflection of human’s fickle psyche I suppose, becomes a detriment to its intentions.


Infected by pop-culture references, the series becomes bed-bound through self-ailment are we really coming to understand Annie and Owen, or are we instead watching Fukanaga’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings? It’s an interesting debate, and will probably spark up some healthy discussion until a second season is announced.


Maniac is ironically trapped inside its own head, struggling to get out. But I’m rooting for it. 7/10.