REVIEW: ‘Maniac’ is visually lush despite an unenticing plot

Netflix’s latest limited series stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as Annie Landsberg and Owen Milgrim, respectively. “Maniac” is directed by Cary Fukunaga. (Photo from IMDb)

Psychedelic visuals and a thrilling premise fall flat in Netflix’s recent small-screen enterprise, “Maniac,” a 10-episode limited series directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. Released on the site on Sept. 21, it follows Owen Milgrim (Hill) and Annie Landsberg (Stone), two troubled souls mired in familial and financial crises who meet when they both volunteer for a highly lucrative and dangerous drug trial.

Owen is a diagnosed schizophrenic, outcast by his family but welcomed back when they need him to lie in court to help his blatantly-guilty brother. Meanwhile, Annie is a drug-addict who seeks consolation from an irreconcilable fight she had with her younger sister years ago. The pharmaceutical trial they enter involves three pills taken consecutively that lowers the subjects’ mental defenses so they can confront their inner demons. Once the pills are swallowed, volunteers are transported into simulations that resemble whatever problems are stirring their subconscious. If all goes according to plan — which almost never happens — the drug promises to spot and battle all their mental ailments.  

“Maniac” has an undeniably attractive premise: two interesting characters stuck in a dangerous drug-trial gone wrong. Yet, the fairly simple idea goes awry once it opens in scope and becomes imbalanced.

“Maniac” dabbles in an eclectic selection of styles and tones, but its creators never make up their minds on which to fully adopt. At times, it is deeply inquisitive, pushing its own theories about destiny in the cosmos; at others, it can be overwhelmingly emotional, tense and action-packed. Still, it loses track of itself when it dabbles in misplaced humor, bizarre characterization and gratuitous violence. There is one especially startling scene in which Owen witnesses a man’s head being drilled in by a crime boss.The scene does not achieve its Tarantino-esque purpose of capturing the audience’s attention through violence — instead, the grotesque, misplaced effect only disgusts viewers.

Protagonists are meant to interest the audience either through empathy or an earnest desire to see what they will do next, but the main characters in “Maniac” barely evoke any of these feelings.

Neither Owen nor Annie are by any means flat characters, but their personalities and struggles are overwhelming. They have equally scarring backstories and face a number of issues, but both stories plateau once the plot piles on ever-thickening layers of complexity. Whatever connection may have been budding between protagonist and audience is prematurely nipped by overly ambitious choices on Fukunaga’s part, such as the addition of a storyline involving a suddenly sentient A.I. that sabotages the drug trial.

Ultimately, satisfying character arcs are sacrificed in exchange for plot convenience. Annie and Owen are inexplicably connected in their simulations by the supercomputer monitoring the trial, but the loose ends of their relationship are resolved far too quickly after the A.I. that introduced them is put away. In a matter of two scenes, the audience is expected to be satisfied with the results, but is instead left wondering how these two are suddenly smiling after feeling utterly hopeless just five minutes ago.

A mere three strands hold “Maniac” together: Stone, Hill and its visual design. The actors showcase their undeniable talent (Stone won an Academy Award for her role in “La La Land” and Hill is a two-time nominee) in how they can readily shift their performances, even with the questionable tonal changes Fukunaga employs. Stone is especially outstanding in her role as Annie; her commitment to the part is contagious, and she shines in vulnerable moments when Annie must divulge all her repressed emotions. Despite how convoluted their characters are, Hill and Stone keep viewers sufficiently interested through sheer talent.

After the lead performances, the visual design is the most rewarding. The bulk of the plot takes place inside a pastel-drenched laboratory illuminated mainly by an occasional, pulsating neon light. Whenever the test subjects are experiencing the effects of the drug, they fall asleep in psych ward recliners while a neon light flickers and fills the shot. The repeated luscious effect reflects the psychedelic nature of the drug itself, and it is easily one of the most captivating aspects of the series.

Cinematography and star power are just enough to push the show up a notch, but “Maniac” is not a wholly rewarding experience. In its ambition, it conjures up one too many storylines and hastily resolves them. Restricted to only 10 episodes, the complicated series fails to connect viewers with its characters’ struggles, and, without this key relationship, rarely persuades viewers to click on the next episode.