MANIAC (2018) – NETFLIX REVIEW
Created by: Patrick Somerville
Based on: Maniac by Espen PA Lervaag, Håakon Bast Mossige, Kjetil Indregard, Ole Marius Araldsen
Developed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga & Patrick Somerville for Netflix
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, Gabriel Byrne, Sally Field
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
What’s your view on striving for originality in storytelling and entertainment? It could be argued that there is no such thing and creators are simply moving creative chess pieces around the same board; or playing the same musical notes but in a different order. One perspective is that you prefer a writer or director to be bold and aim for originality; with the potential risk they alienate the audience. Some creators actually don’t care about the audience but many others do, preferring to connect emotionally within the casing of genre conventions. Personally, I prefer to be moved emotionally firstly and if the filmmaker or writer has presented their story in an impressive style then this serves to enhance the enjoyment of the narrative.
Cary Joji Fukunaga is a genre filmmaker who has established himself capable of developing impressive genre works such as: Jane Eyre (2011), True Detective (2014), and the brilliant film Beasts of No Nation (2015). Recently, he has also been involved in bringing It (2017) and The Alienist (2018) to the screen; although he did not serve as final director on such products. His latest directorial offering is an adaptation of a Norwegian comedy drama called Maniac. Over ten hit-and-miss episodes we follow the misadventures of a depressive and unstable Owen (Jonah Hill), and grieving pill-addict Annie (Emma Stone), as they enter a medical trial run by the secretive Neberdine Pharmaceutical organisation.
The trial itself involves taking a series of pills and the participants’ cerebral responses being recorded on a sentient artificially intelligent computer called GRTA. Here, Owen and Annie’s lives and minds become internally entwined as the story enables us to visualise their mental anxieties and re-enact their fears during the trial. Owen’s angst is caused by a family issue involving his brother, while Annie still blames herself for a family tragedy. The bizarre surrealist events are very effectively established, however, over the dizzying spectrum of several genre-crossing episodes we essentially get told the same two stories within the: crime, romance, gangster, fantasy and spy genres.
The performances are interesting. Fukunaga has created a world that exists somewhere in between the real and surreal and the future, past and current times. Because of this there’s a sense he has freed the actors from naturalism and at times created a stylistic distanciation. Conversely, Emma Stone was brilliant as always and she is skilled enough to make the strangeness resonate emotionally. However, I felt Jonah Hill, while giving a fine and committed performance, was miscast. Interestingly, Justin Theroux features in a curious turn as a Doctor on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Theroux is a fascinating actor who I think is sabotaging his career and could be the next George Clooney but continues to choose weirdo roles which serve his career no benefit. But hey what do I know!? Maybe he’s having a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the postmodern stylings cloaked a pretty conventional love story and once again, with a Netflix show, I felt that ten episodes were stretching the narrative a tad. Fukunaga’s combination of different genres and eccentric characters plus a smattering a bloody violence and techno-humour is always interesting. Moreover, much fun is to be had from the references to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Lord of the Rings and many more films. Nowhere near as brilliant as True Detective or Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga still impresses as a director even if Maniac is arguably style over content. Nonetheless, Fukunaga should still be commended for striving for a semblance of originality and ambition, rather than just go for an big payday on a franchise studio genre film.