Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) suffers from Schizophrenia, which has left him on the outer edges of his wealthy family. His only hope of redeeming himself is by agreeing to provide an alibi for his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) in a court case against him that could potentially ruin the family business. After losing his job and unwilling to take assistance from his parents, Owen decides to participate in a mysterious medical trial to make some money.
Here he meets Annie (Emma Stone), who has lied her way onto the trial because she has been experimenting with one of the drugs being tested and is addicted to its effects. Owen immediately feels they have a connection and as they begin to experience the phases of the trial they find their experiences joined together in an unexpected way.
Meanwhile the artificial intelligence guiding the trial is deeply depressed following the death of Dr Muramoto (Rome Kando) the its lead researcher. This means Dr Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) will have to get her disgraced former colleague, Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) back on board, which isn’t without complexities.
I am not really sure how to describe Maniac, because it is absolutely bonkers. The first odd thing is the setting. It is obviously present time but in a parallel universe where technology has develop differently to ours. There are no mobile phones and the computers look like they’re from the 80s but at the same time complex VR is possible. There is also a feeling that the ruling cultural influence on society is Japan despite it being in a US setting and the type of advertising happening is even more pervasive than we are used to.
Then there’s the fact that Owen, Annie and the other trial participants experience multiple other realities and identities as they work through the issues that are impacting their lives. Because these realities and interactions have a dreamlike quality that can be extremely surreal, which could be a challenge to some viewers.
Director, Cary Joji Fukunaga is unquestionably influenced by Wes Anderson, which means there are moments of almost “overacting” from some of the actors, especially Theroux, and the set design sometimes feels so big and intense it’s like an extra character.
It is definitely not going to be for everyone. In fact I can imagine that many people will flat out hate it and see it as a jumbled mess. Personally I absolutely loved it. I thought it was a fascinating and insightful look into mental health, trauma and how human beings are impacted and affected by the things that they experience. I was sucked into Owen and Annie’s journey and I could identify with a lot of what they went through as someone who is currently on medication for mental health issues and who has been through multiple bouts of therapy.
There are so many layers of symbolism at play that I could write six blogs about it (I won’t) and I feel like I could watch it over and over and get something different from it every time.
On top of this there is an outstanding cast that gives really compelling performances. Hill completely embodies the softly spoken, fragile Owen but also manages a chameleon-like transformation into the other identities he explores. Stone is also really engaging as Annie, who hides her broken heart behind an angry defensive façade and the two have great chemistry. They are rounded out by a strong supporting cast with Sally Field stealing every scene she’s in.
I wasn’t 100% on board with the sequence where Owen becomes an Icelandic diplomat and Annie is an ass kicking CIA agent but this was a small blip in what for me was something really special.
If this sounds like your kind of thing, then watch it… you’ll love it. If any of this sounds potentially too weird or deep then avoid like the plague.