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‘Maniac’ and Hollywood’s Problem With Mental Illness

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Emma Stone/Jonah Hill Netflix series

I consider myself fortunate not to be someone who battles mental illness, but because I live in a big city in which homelessness is rampant, I’m frequently reminded what the worst-case scenarios can look like, and it’s heartbreaking. Add to that the fact that the stigma of depression has lifted somewhat in my lifetime — inspiring individuals in the public eye to acknowledge their battles with anxiety disorders and suicide — and it becomes increasingly clear that we as a society have turned a corner in empathizing with those who have mental problems.

It would be nice, though, if Hollywood got the message, too. The new Netflix series Maniac presents us with two characters waging a losing battle for mental wellness, and while the show is often superbly acted and engagingly watchable, its old-school approach to “damaged” people left me unsettled throughout its 10 episodes. To be sure, Maniac isn’t manipulative or crass in its depiction, but its cutesy, simple-minded approach is irritating in its own way. Actual human beings suffer from depression and schizophrenia, and I suspect it’s rarely as dramatically convenient or adorably quirky as it’s shown here.

The series, which was created by novelist Patrick Somerville and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (one of the men behind the first season of True Detective), plunges us into a fascinating parallel reality that features both a fairly advanced future and one that’s far behind ours technologically. (Billboards advertise trips to the moon, but characters use 1980s-era computers with floppy disks.) We’re disoriented from the start, which is when we meet Owen (Jonah Hill), a quiet, brittle man who’s the black sheep of his rich, callous family. Diagnosed with schizophrenia 10 years ago, Owen thinks he sees his spoiled brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) everywhere — and that’s when he’s not imagining random earthquakes occurring around him. Speaking in hushed tones and exuding a supremely recessive manner, Hill plays him with a fragility that makes us fear for Owen’s well-being at every moment.

Owen finds himself drawn to a pharmaceutical test put together by Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech, which promises to make him a happier person. He ends up as part of the same test group as Annie (Emma Stone), who’s depressed, nursing unresolved guilt over the tragic death of her sister and other unspecified family issues. Unlike Owen, though, she volunteers in part because she’s hooked on a medication that NPB distributes — signing up to be a lab rat is the easiest way she can get access to more of the drug.

As you might imagine, these characters’ quest to get “better” doesn’t go smoothly, but what becomes bothersome quickly about Maniac (which is adapted from a Norwegian series) is that the show’s creative team isn’t particularly interested in examining what has driven Owen and Annie to this point. Instead, Maniac uses their mental issues as a launching pad for an “inventive” journey through the mind, playing with notions of reality and what, exactly, insanity even is.

Maniac is hardly the first movie or television show to explore these questions. Philip K. Dick made a career out of such musings, inspiring big-screen versions of A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall, and more recently the FX series Legion featured a main character who was believed to be schizophrenic, surrounded by other characters with similar mental issues. Like those other films and series, Maniac operates in the realm of science-fiction, crafting a surreal world that makes us question everything we’re watching. As odd things happen during the Netflix show, we’re meant to wonder if we’re as disturbed as Maniac’s broken souls.

The pharmaceutical test takes place over three stages, each of them requiring Owen and Annie to take a pill, which sends them into a subconscious state where they can be monitored by the NPB team, including Justin Theroux’s wacked-out scientist who’s running the experiment. But unlike, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which delved into its characters’ minds to examine their closely guarded shames and insecurities, Maniac is a grab bag of glib genre exercises. In one stage, Owen and Annie are in a Hitchcock-ian romantic drama. In another, she explores a Lord of the Rings­-style fantasy realm, while he’s in a third-rate gangster drama. In these different layers of their subconscious, there are clues to what’s truly troubling them, but mostly it’s an excuse for two celebrated actors to don wigs, period costumes or wacky accents. It’s less therapeutic than it is an elaborate game of dress-up.

Unfortunately, Owen and Annie aren’t alone in having their issues be used as easy dramatic fodder. Theroux’s tormented doctor is supposed to be just as fucked-up as his patients — so, really, who’s the insane one, huh? — and the actor saddles him with a series of annoying tics to go along with his obviously “hilarious” sexual hang-ups. (Apparently, he’s hooked on virtual-reality sex.) In addition, the computer he’s created for the experiment is a computer replica of his controlling therapist mom (Sally Field), laying bare his extreme mommy issues.

No doubt Maniac’s writers want to use Theroux as a satiric counterpoint to Annie and Owen, highlighting the hypocrisy of a society that allows certain “experts” to pass judgment on the struggles of others. But the Netflix series isn’t much better than the doctor in this regard. Hill and especially Stone are compelling, but Maniac positions their mental issues as “riddles” in need of solving: Once they figure out what’s wrong with them, presto change-o, they’ll be able to live better lives.

I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity of those involved with Maniac. Stone, for one, has been quite candid about her battles with anxiety since childhood, saying, “It has always been something that I’ve lived with and it flares up in big ways at different times in my life. Sometimes while it’s happening, like while I’m in a phase of big turmoil, it feels like it’s never gonna end — but it does. … I mean, I still have anxiety to this day, not panic attacks — knock on wood.”

As Stone can probably attest, issues like anxiety don’t get “solved” as much as they’re acknowledged and adjusted to. It’s not something you “fix” — it’s something you learn to live with. Sadly, Maniac takes the easy way out, offering glib bromides. At one point, Annie tries to shake Owen out of his funk: “So you saw some things that weren’t there. So what? People see aliens, people hear voices, people see ghosts.” Owen isn’t having it: “My mind, it doesn’t work right,” he tells us. “No one’s does,” responds Annie, which seems to be Maniac’s overarching message.

On the one hand, that’s a wonderfully nonjudgmental way of looking at the stresses and anxieties we all face because of modern life. On the other, it’s terribly naïve: Hey, cheer up, we’re all kinda crazy. At a time when society has become more open about how mental issues affect so many people, it would be nice if a show like Maniac used these challenges for more than a plot point.

Here are a few other takeaways from Maniac.

#1. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have come a long way since ‘Superbad.’

You never know for sure what kind of future young actors are going to have. But I felt pretty confident when I watched Superbad back in 2007 that rising stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone were going to be big deals.

For Hill, the movie was his first starring vehicle after showing up in Judd Apatow comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. But Superbad was Stone’s first film, period, and she immediately made an impression as the pretty but nerdy crush of Hill’s obnoxious, insecure Seth. This early scene where Jules and Seth get to know each other neatly established both actors’ on-screen persona.

Stone and Hill haven’t acted together since, and it’s funny to watch Superbad now and think about how much they’ve both evolved in the last 11 years. Hill has worked particularly hard to shed the crass-guy demeanor, earning two Oscar nominations and recently unveiling his directorial debut.

Stone’s transformation isn’t as pronounced, but it’s equally significant. In early films like The House Bunny, she was the lovable dork, but she eventually segued into more impressive dramatic fare like The Help and served as the love interest in the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies. By Birdman, which earned her an Oscar nomination, she was a formidable, grown-up actress. When she won Best Actress for La La Land, her character didn’t seem that much different than Jules — both women are self-deprecating and good-hearted — but the emotional depth was far richer.

#2. I don’t want a service where actors fill in for my friends and loved ones.

One of the trippy ideas in Maniac’s bizarre version of reality is that people can hire actors to play surrogates for important people in your life. Want to talk to your best friend even though they’re not around? A surrogate can serve as a stand-in.

This isn’t a new concept in fiction, but it remains a deeply creepy one. I’ve previously written about Marjorie Prime, which imagines a near-future where the living can purchase a digital replica of their deceased loved ones, shaping the dead person into someone who’s a little better (or a little kinder or warmer) than the real thing. In that film, based on Jordan Harrison’s play, it quickly becomes clear that the characters aren’t really missing their spouse or parent — they’re missing the constant affection and reassurance that person can give them, even if the dead loved one wasn’t that way when they were alive.

Another example of this idea was explored in 2011’s Alps, an unnerving drama from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (who’s also responsible for The Lobster and the highly anticipated The Favourite, which happens to star Emma Stone as well). In Alps, we meet a group of mismatched individuals (including a gymnast and a nurse) who have gone into business for themselves. They play dead people, acting out scenes with their clients where they reenact moments from the past, helping to give these people closure with those close to them.

Because Lanthimos lives for dark, twisted scenarios, this odd service soon presents a few ethical issues that impact the employees. Whether it’s Alps, Marjorie Prime or Maniac, it’s interesting that recent movies and TV shows have offered variations on this idea of replicating people in our lives, giving us a sense of satisfaction that human beings rarely provide with their complicated emotions and conflicting self-interests. It speaks to a universal desire: We all need people in our lives, but we’d prefer to control those interactions so that we ensure we get what we want out of them.

#3. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is still amazing.

It’s a sign of Maniac’s cheekiness that occasionally Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” — or the song it samples, Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up on My Baby” — pops up on the soundtrack. Yeah, yeah, we get it: Maniac’s characters think their minds are playing tricks on them.

Nonetheless, I’d like to take a moment to remind everyone what an incredible song this is. Prior to that 1991 hit, Geto Boys were generally considered a second-tier gangster rap group from Houston, unable to match the dark heights of an N.W.A. That changed with “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” a gritty snapshot of life on the margins beset with violence, paranoia and mental instability.

It wasn’t fantasy. “I was in a real fucked-up state of mind, to the point where I just wanted to die,” Geto Boys member Scarface later said about coming up with the track. Suffering from manic depression and ingesting everything from LSD to glue, he was inspired by hearing his grandmother talk to herself, explaining to him, “Oh nothing, my mind’s just playing tricks on me.”

The Hayes guitar lick gives “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” its steely, unsettled edge as the Geto Boys (which included Bushwick Bill and Willie D) lay out exactly why they’re unraveling. The song was their first hit and remains their biggest, defining an era and also influencing future groups. (Years later, the hip-hop duo Clipse recorded “Nightmares,” an equally paranoid portrait that explicitly referenced “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”)

The song is now nearly 30 years old, but when it pops up on old-school rap radio, its impact remains potent. It’s a vision of hell that’s hard to shake. Lots of gangster rap glamorized the lifestyle. Yet nobody who’s heard “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” ever wanted to sign up.