Two strangers are drawn to a mysterious pharmaceutical trial that will, they’re assured, with no complications or side-effects whatsoever, solve all of their problems, permanently. Things do not go as planned.
We’re in futuristic New York… sort of. The Statue of ‘Extra Liberty’ gleams prominently from the New York harbour, a winged man wielding a spear, while citizens of the city can use an ‘ad buddy’ as a means of currency. Don’t have the cash to get yourself a train fare? An ad buddy will sit next to you and promote companies and services for the duration of your journey to cover the cost.
It’s an offbeat picture of the future, not least because this seemingly advanced society is running on some pretty old tech. PCs in office building look like desktops from the late 1980s, landline phones with large buttons are installed in city apartments and while billboards speak their pre-recorded promotion to passers by, the images appear on rotating panels rather than flashy LED screens.
Enter Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), the son of a wealthy New York family. His father, who managed to forget to include his son in a large family oil painting, speaks of a “psychotic break” that Owen experienced 10 years previously, and while Owen insists he has recovered, an imaginary, moustachioed version of his antagonistic older brother Jed appears to him and tells him he has been chosen to save the world. He must make contact with a woman who can help him.
Refusing a handout from the bank of mum and dad after losing his job, Owen enrols in a paid medical trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech (NPB) where he first sees Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), a clearly agitated woman who Owen believes will help him save the world. She has her own desperate reasons for taking part in the trial and it seems Owen is not alone in trying to escape familial trauma and make it on his own.
Bathed in neon light, the pair take their seats to watch a hilariously cringeworthy ’70s-style educational video in which Dr James K Mantleray (Justin Theroux) informs the group of the trial’s aims. NPB promises a safe solution to the pain caused by traumatic memories. The brain will ‘remap’ its response to pain, leading to pure joy.
After the painful reliving of the worst day of their lives, what begins as a dark dystopia finds itself lurching into different genres as Owen and Annie find themselves thrown together in a series of shared fantasies. Sometimes darkly comedic, sometimes tense and thrilling, our protagonists find a quiet space where they can make sense of their pain and, as the operating system overseeing the tests slowly becomes sentient, the trial inadvertently offers our lonely protagonists the very thing it had been trying to prevent: connection.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga creates a curious dystopian world, an alternative future that is a marvel to explore. The series may be based on the Norwegian TV series of the same name, but there are other clear influences that help shape the warped world of Maniac.
Owen’s small apartment in a city high rise may put you in mind of protagonist Sam Lowry’s flat in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece Brazil or, more recently, K’s city apartment in Blade Runner 2049. In all three cases, the living space is small and sterile, an identikit copy, we imagine, of every other apartment in the building. The occupant is living an anonymous life and yet they dream of more; of rising above the city and its drudgery and becoming someone.
It does not seem a coincidence that our protagonist, just like Sam in Brazil, has access to an opulent world of wealth and privilege that he does not feel a part of. Owen’s family home is grand and gaudy in design, dripping with expensive furnishings and oil paintings. We’ve seen the lavish lives of the rich in recent dystopias such as Netflix’s Altered Carbon and the message appears to remain the same – that it’s an exclusive club for those at the top, who largely turn a blind eye to the squalor happening below.