Netflix’s ‘Maniac’ Is a Hallucinatory, Emotional Dream Machine

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone confront family issues during a retro-futuristic drug trial in "Maniac," debuting Friday on Netflix.
Credit...Michele K. Short/Netflix
NYT Critic's Pick

“Maniac” is about an experimental psychoactive drug. Also, it sort of is an experimental psychoactive drug.

At your first dose, things go wonky, just a little, around the edges. You’re in a New York City that looks like today’s New York but isn’t. A winged “Statue of Extra Liberty” towers in the harbor. Humans rent themselves out in a turbocharged gig economy, while Muppet-like robots hustle chess games in the park. Tiny wheeled “poop bots” trudge the sidewalks cleaning up dog waste. (The subways — well, the subways are still recognizably lousy.)

On these retro-techno streets (basically, the future as imagined in 1980) we find Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone), two strangers who meet as subjects in a dodgy trial for psychiatric medication that promises to give its users’ subconsciouses a deep cleaning by inducing dangerous, therapeutic dreams.

At this point, “Maniac,” which appears on Netflix on Friday, ups the dosage and becomes something unstable, exhilarating and one-of-a-kind, a sci-fi pharmacological dystopian family-therapy dramedy.

Owen, the disdained younger son of a plutocrat family (they made their fortune in poop bots), is scraping by on temp jobs and haunted by hallucinations. The street-savvy Annie has gotten hooked on illicit samples from the drug trial that allow her to re-experience a defining trauma. He joins the experiment to earn cash; she joins to get a fix.

The first episode mostly follows Owen’s story, the weaker of the two. His humiliation by his family of entitled bros (with Gabriel Byrne as the pushy paterfamilias) plays like “Succession” with extra psychosis. Mr. Hill is so subdued and mumble-mouthed he seems to be performing under local anesthesia.

In Episode 2, Annie crashes the narrative, driven by guilt over the disintegration of her family and a generalized rage at the world. Ms. Stone plays her like she’s packed with gunpowder. She blackmails her way into the trial, telling her unfortunate target that she’s not crazy, “I’m just goal-oriented.” In the lab, she and Owen are assigned honeycomb-like pods and set to the job of dreaming.

The experiment is itself a family drama. Dr. James Mantleray (a wonderfully pompous Justin Theroux, in a Warhol moptop) has a long-simmering resentment of his mother, Greta (Sally Field), a best-selling pop-psych author, and he’s channeled his issues into his anthropomorphized computer. The machine — revealingly named GRTA — inevitably glitches, threatening both science and subjects: My Mother, the HAL 9000.

Based on a Norwegian series about the Walter Mitty delusions of a psychiatric patient, “Maniac” was created by Patrick Somerville, a former writer for “The Leftovers.” You can catch echoes of that metaphysical drama’s cosmic oddball moments here.

ImageMs. Stone and Mr. Hill in one of the show’s extended dream sequences, which channel different genres.
Credit...Michele K. Short/Netflix

But the real surprise is Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directs all 10 episodes and is known for shooting Season 1 of “True Detective.” “Maniac” is as playful and vibrant as that series was gothic and dark, lit in neon pink and electric blue, borrowing aesthetics from Japanese design and the “late ’70s electronic toys” section of eBay.

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Much of the action takes place in Annie and Owen’s shared dreams, where they must combat their personal demons, often with small-arms fire. Mr. Fukunaga jumps genres ably in these segments. One, involving the heist of a lemur, is like a Coen Brothers screwball caper; another is convincing “Lord of the Rings” high fantasy. (Their computer-engineered phantasms are less like chaotic actual dreams and more like a sampler of the Netflix recommendations menu.)

You can do anything in dreams; this has been the curse of many a story set in the subconscious. “Maniac” could easily have used its premise to become another video maze, like “Westworld,” so busy tricking its audience and inducing galaxy-brain moments that it forgets to make its characters into people.

But for all its invention, “Maniac” keeps the “Inception” convolutions to a minimum, toggling intelligibly between the lab and the flights of fancy in Annie and Owen’s heads.

In dreamspace, he’s freed of his meekness, she of her self-flagellation. Yet in every incarnation — mobster, diplomat, secret agent — they encounter figures from their real-life history. For Owen, it’s his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen), a manipulative imp; for Annie, her estranged sister, Ellie (Julia Garner). They become like partners in a two-player video game, in which the boss to be conquered is the familial past.

Occasionally, all this psycho-gaming slips into dorm-room heavy-talk about what it all means, man; “Our brains are just computers that make our life stories make sense,” Owen says, as if we haven’t been watching a series about precisely that. And the series seems to realize that Annie’s arc is the more involving of the two, shifting focus to it over its run.

But “Maniac” is inventive and well-paced enough (the episodes clock in at a welcome 40 minutes or less) to breeze past its missteps. If you can resist a story line in which Ms. Stone relives a defining catastrophe in the person of a cynical elf warrior, your “defense mechanisms,” as Dr. Mantleray would put it, are stronger than mine.

In an age of desiccated puzzle-stories, “Maniac” puts emotion first, even at the risk of sentimentality. It’s a heart-shaped Rubik’s Cube, a funny, consistently surprising fable of broken machines trying to reassemble themselves.