Maniac, the Netflix mini-series created by Cary Joji Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville, is a bumpy ride but is absolutely worth the trip. The story is ostensibly about two people in an experimental pharmaceutical trial gone wrong, but for the audience, it is a head trip, following clues and trying to figure out which ones will lead to revelations and which ones lead nowhere. The series moves through such tricky subjects as destiny, family, soul mates and sanity itself.
The two subjects of the voluntary drug trial are Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill). The series would be worth watching just to see Stone and Hill working together, but they share the screen with other talents, including the researchers in charge of the study, Sonoya Mizuno as Dr. Azumi Fujita and Justin Theroux as Dr. James K. Mantleray. Sally Field also makes an appearance, and she is quirky and delightful as Dr. Greta Mantleray…and as the computer behind the research study.
Annie and Owen are strangers with unhappy lives thrown together by chance. Or is it fate? Or is one of them a figment of the other’s imagination brought on by the chemical “healing” of the tests they are undergoing?
The mini-series is stylistically versatile. The early episodes, before the drug trials begin, are darkly surreal, a pseudo-contemporary New York with Ad Buddies who pay you to listen to them read advertisements and Friend Proxies who are paid to be your friend, making the mental problems of Annie and Owen understandable. Once the drug trials begin the story moves from genre to genre, from a fantasy sequence in which Annie and her sister are elves, to a gritty mob boss storyline that emphasizes the pressures put on Owen by his family. There are several scenarios in which Owen and Annie are together, including the humorous episode in which they are a married couple in 1980s Long Island and a film noir sequence in which they are 1940s grifters. Every episode brings something new. At one point Owen is even a hawk.
The greatest appeal of Maniac is that the characters have issues that we all have to deal with in our lives: friendship and love, family and work, joy and loss. They move and change, experiencing reality and insanity and drug-induced hallucinations, sometimes confusing but always interesting -- and centering on the question of what it means to be sane.