Bend Your Mind with Some Weird TV: "Maniac" with Jonah Hill and Emma Stone
I love wonderful stories, whatever the medium – books, audiobooks, movies, and TV – and I found a new one recently on Netflix called “Maniac.”
“Maniac” is a 10-episode, 2018 Netflix miniseries original, based on
a series created by Hakon Bast Mossige and Espen PA Lervaaq for
Norwegian television. But the American version couldn’t be more different from the original. The Norwegian series is about a mentally ill patient in a hospital whose baffling, real-life behavior is in response to his intense, exciting, hallucinatory life.
The American series, developed by director Cary Fukunaga and written by Patrick Somerville, is a dark comedy that takes place in
an alternative reality; it kind of puts us, the TV viewers, in the position of the Norwegian series’ mental patient. In this world, it’s just hard to tell what’s real. Everybody smokes, cell-phones don’t exist, ersatz friends are for hire, and “Ad Buddies” provide cash for anything as long as you allow a representative to stay close and read a series of ads to you (in and of itself an interesting, if dystopian, marketing idea). And that’s before the hallucinations begin.
The plot revolves around finding connection, the essential ingredient of mental health. Also finding self-acceptance. Also
finding reality seems to be important. Our two primary characters, a schizophrenic played by Jonah Hill, and a trauma-scarred neurotic
played by Emma Stone, are having problems with reality. Because they need money, they join a huge pharmaceutical company’s clinical trial. An emotionally-
fragile artificial intelligence and two quixotic doctors (who developed the treatment) lead the experiment. Then there's the doctor's mother, played by Sally Field: a renowned, possibly charlatan psychologist and sexually inappropriate debilitating presence on whom the AI is modeled.
The series is funny, riveting and original, though I did have to watch the first two episodes twice to figure out what the heck was going on. There is so much in each 40-minute episode, it’s easy to miss things … frustrating for some viewers, but fun for others.
Jonah Hill and Emma Stone romp through many different characters in hallucinated scenarios as they each relive and confront their demons – returning to “real” reality only to rehash what it all means with the scarily dysfunctional doctors.
Though I’ve never been a fan of Jonah Hill’s immature frat-boy comedy, I thought his performance in Maniac took him to a new
level. Though his schizophrenic Owen was rather monochromatic (he plays it mostly pretty depressed, unlike other schizophrenics I’ve known), he does a convincing job and is wonderful playing other hallucinatory characters like Long Island devoted husband and Mafia-guy son. Emma Stone really kills it playing various, wildly different characters in the hallucination scenes.
Overall the acting, writing, cinematography and directing were great in my book. Most people have reviewed it well, though some didn't like it. Entertainment Weekly gave it a scathing pan, which I feel was largely unwarranted. The series isn’t perfect; there are some gaps and inconsistencies; maybe it wasn’t life-changing. If it had been serious, set in the real world with the only weirdness being therapeutic and drug-induced hallucinations, it might have satisfied some critics. But it would not have been such a wild ride. As riveting entertainment with mind-boggling zips, surprising zags, allusions, suggestions, funny characters and creative ideas, I think it was first-rate.