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'Maniac' review: Jonah Hill and Emma Stone star in a mind-blowing trip worth taking

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone star in the

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone star in the Netflix series "Maniac." Credit: Netflix/Michele K. Short


WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), son of a wealthy industrialist, is a depressed schizophrenic who hears voices and sees imaginary people. Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) is also desperate and damaged and wants to mend a fractured relationship with her sister and mother, both dead. These two tragic souls find their way to Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, a giant and somewhat sinister Big Pharma company that's testing a drug (or series of them) that promises pure happiness. Both strangers, Owen and Annie join the trial, then discover, mostly during dream states, that they have a mysterious connection. The inventor of these pills — which put recipients into deep dreams — is one Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux). There's something off about him and something really off about his mother, celebrity shrink Dr. Greta Mantleray (Sally Field).

This 10-parter — based on a Norwegian series — was created by novelist Patrick Somerville ("The Universe in Miniature in Miniature") and directed by Cary Fukunaga ("True Detective"). Parts were shot in Valley Stream and Oceanside.

MY SAY To orient you — and you'll need lots of orienting with "Maniac" — the Long Island episode arrives just before midpoint, or the fourth one. It features the Long Island that the rest of the world sometimes sees, or at least Hollywood does, of malls, traffic, big hair, mullets and thick Lawn Guyland accents. A ringtailed-lemur from Madagascar assumes a starring role. So do some locked-and-loaded agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service who are more aligned with the Gestapo than a benign federal agency. "Linda [a character Annie plays in a dream] was from Long Island," Annie later recalls when she's awake. "I could smell her perm."

Funny, sure, but more absurd than funny and more psychotropic than absurd. That's par for the crazy course in "Maniac." Everything else is too.

"Maniac" is Pynchonesque only in the sense that there really is no other word to adequately describe the free flow of tangents, associations and allusions in this series, each drawing viewers down some rabbit hole where they all become curiouser and curiouser. Why Long Island? Maybe in homage (Thomas Pynchon is from Glen Cove, after all). But the better question is why not?

Lots of disconnected places and things find their way into "Maniac." Lots of seemingly disparate cultural touchstones, or hints of them, do as well: "Lord of the Rings," "Donnie Darko," "Dr. Strangelove," a few Coen brothers movies and a few seminal cyberpunk novel/movie/series ("Johnny Mnemonic").

"Maniac" might well be another one of those smarty pants postmodern TV series that like to show off — "Mr. Robot" Meets "The Leftovers" — or a sendup of them. Either way, it works well on both levels.

Mostly — and occasionally despite itself — "Maniac" is just fun, at points raucously funny. Most of the episodes unfold as dreams, where the narrative logic seems perfectly plausible, but the narrative elements are out of this world. In each Fukunaga has fused, or bridged, the divide so that they're recognizable, or as real as dreams get. These episodes also seem to get at a profound truth, that dreams are simply stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — an act of simulated reality that can sometimes seem more real than the waking world. At least the crazy dreams of "Maniac" have that quality.

 To enjoy this you'll need to submit to "Maniac's" many peculiarities, but those are part of its charm — arguably all of its charm. These include: "Gerty," the pink, passionate, deeply feeling, deeply manipulative supercomputer, Theroux's Mantleray, a cyber-auto-eroticized wacko with mommy issues, and — most of all — Hill's Owen and Stone's Annie. They've been destined to be together since the Big Bang. They're also wonderful, memorable and terribly (terribly) sad.

BOTTOM LINE Dive in, don't think, enjoy. You most likely will, by the way.  

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