Created by: Patrick Somerville || Written by: Patrick Somerville, Caroline Williams, Nick Cuse, Mauricio Katz, Danielle Henderson, Cary Joji Fukunaga
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga || Starring: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, Gabriel Byrne, Sally Field
No. of Episodes: 10 (~ 400 minutes total)
Cary Joji Fukunaga, who established himself with the Mexican-American crime epic, Sin Nombre (2009), and rose to prominence as the creative mind behind the first season of True Detective (2014, titled “The Long Bright Dark”), is also the first filmmaker to have their standalone feature distributed by Netflix. One of the world’s greatest contemporary auteurs, Fukunaga will return to theatres with the 2020 James Bond flick, No Time to Die, but unless that turns out to be one of the greatest action films of all time, my guess is that Fukunaga’s legacy will be forever dominated by his work in web television.
Case in point is another one of Netflix’s acclaimed limited, or mini-series, Maniac, Fukunaga’s take on the sort of bizarre, absurdist dystopia reminiscent of the black comedy works of Terry Gilliam (e.g. Brazil , 12 Monkeys ) or Yorgos Lanthimos (e.g. The Lobster ), though with a dash of Wes Anderson’s plucky optimism and stylized color palette. The dry humor of the series’ alternative modern day New York feels at home amidst the current popular culture obsession of remixing the 1980s zeitgeist, mixed with notable contemporary flourishes like several running jokes involving pervasive advertising and digital privacy. From this identifiable yet somewhat derivative diegesis springs the two main plots of the series: (1) A couple of misfits (former Superbad  costars Emma Stone and a now thin, Afro-free Jonah Hill reunite) take part in an experimental psychotropic drug trial to earn much needed cash and service their mental disorders (Stone’s female lead is a probable borderline personality, while Hill’s male lead is schizophrenic), while (2) researchers for the comical, dare I say stereotypical Japanese based company overseeing the experiment (a wonderful Sonoya Mizuno and Justin Theroux), struggle to complete the trial with conclusive data and zero casualties. Making matters worse is the complicated, quasi self-aware artificial intelligence and super computer known as GRTA, who is responsible for generating virtual reality therapeutic simulations for the patients in combination with their drug treatment. GRTA’s “personality” is also based on the overbearing, near abusive mother (Sally Field) of Theroux’s character.
If this sounds like a ton of hyperbolic material in one narrative, I can assure you it is. This part science-fiction social satire, part character study benefits from its well paced, elongated miniseries structure, as well as Fukunaga’s singular directorial vision and acting direction. He coaxes a wide range of impressive performances from the entire cast, from main to recurring to guest roles. His consistent directorial approach to the show’s color processing, production design, and deadpan humor save what may have otherwise been a bloated, incoherent mess of a critique on contemporary mental illness healthcare. Much like his work on True Detective (henceforth, TD), Fukunaga commands an unwieldy, tonally complex narrative premise spearheaded by complicated, some would say gratuitous character development and somehow makes everything work. Fukunaga is an experienced writer, himself (he wrote Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation (2015), and has writing credit on one episode of Maniac), yet his greatest talent may be executing the ambitious but unfocused works of lesser career screenwriters like Nic Pizzolatto (TD) and Patrick Somerville (Maniac).
For my part, the least interesting elements of this series are the aforementioned virtual reality simulations portrayed by the somewhat ominous, HAL-like GRTA; this plot device, in theory, allows for detailed visualization of Stone’s and Hill’s character development, but in reality is more of an excuse to shoehorn various genre vignettes into the overarching narrative. These vignettes, which span disparate genres from military science-fiction to fantasy to crime drama to wacky, buddy cop comedies, are almost short films unto themselves, becoming increasingly superfluous as the series accelerates toward its conclusion. These elaborate dream sequences feel like a carryover from earlier versions of Maniac’s script, and seem at odds with the more painstaking, realistic development and muted cinematography of Mizuno and Theroux’s storyline outside of these surrealist therapy sessions. Stone and Hill too feel more relatable when not jacked into The Matrix (1999), so much so that their debilitating mental disorders feel better explored just talking to each other or to other supporting characters. Even Hill’s schizophrenic hallucinations seem like further justification for the series’ complicated virtual reality gimmick, when in practice both his and Stone’s symptoms are more characteristic of clinical depression or severe anxiety.
The saving grace of Maniac is the human heart at its center, best personified by Mizuno and Theroux’s chemistry, as well as the upbeat ending for Stone and Hill’s character arcs. The subtle career drama of Mizuno and Theroux working together while struggling to put aside their personal feelings for one another, not to mention their convincing discussion of scientific research in general, sells much of the narrative drama in the show’s latter half. Adding a kooky Sally Field as a manipulative yet talented psychotherapist (i.e. pairing opposite character archetypes) to the mix in the final stretch is icing on the cake. With regards to the show’s emotional conclusion, both the Hill/Stone and Mizuno/Theroux storylines overlap in satisfying ways such that cynics like me can accept the GRTA subplot as a means to an end. The show’s earned happy ending is so warmhearted that the all the bumps and rough edges along the way feel worth it.
Maniac is further evidence of Cary Fukunaga’s near immaculate abilities to elevate the muddled work of less talented filmmakers into unforgettable projects. Maniac is not as impressive as True Detective’s “The Long Bright Dark,” but Patrick Somerville’s creative darling is about as bizarre, discombobulated, and confusing on paper as any contemporary television series premise, and yet somehow Fukunaga makes it work. The execution or translation of a written outline to screen, as I’ve long argued, is what matters in filmmaking, and Fukunaga’s select adaptations of other filmmakers’ incoherent ideas are great examples of that argument. I’m not saying the creators of True Detective (Nic Pizzolatto) and Maniac (Somerville) are incompetent hacks, but what I am saying is they owe the lion’s share of their projects’ success, as well as their related boost in career opportunities, to the directorial precision of one Cary Joji Fukunaga.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With a diegesis that’s difficult to grasp and a central plot device that is more an excuse for genre hybridization than actual storytelling, Maniac shouldn’t work as well as it does. The series’ emotional impact is a result of a smorgasbord of career highlight performances, including emotional, dynamite chemistry between leads Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. Also worth appreciating is the show’s brilliant artistic style and production-design, which is most prominent in Fukunaga’s depiction of an eccentric, alternative reality that mixes everything from Terry Gilliam to Wes Anderson.
— However… Hill’s schizophrenic hallucinations feel like a narrative afterthought and Maniac’s computer-generated simulations shrink in running time and thematic importance as the series progresses.
? What’s wrong isn’t that I’m sick… it’s that I don’t matter.