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Review: Maniac

While impressive for its detailed and certainly imaginative world building, Maniac rarely dares to truly confound its audience.

2.5

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Maniac
Photo: Michele K. Short/Netflix

Despite humming with oddball energy and aspiring to absurdist extremes, Maniac is the simple story of two broken people who heal by connecting with one another. Owen (Jonah Hill), the black sheep of a wealthy family, suffers from schizophrenia. Annie (Emma Stone), a traumatized drug addict, is riddled with crippling guilt over a personal tragedy. By chance, the two sign up for the same trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, to test a drug meant to end people’s mental anguish and as such the need for therapy.

The drug in question drives patients into their own subconscious, producing hallucinations meant to confront the source of a patient’s trauma. For Owen and Annie, these visions include the former taking the form of a hawk and the latter becoming a deadly C.I.A. agent. These visions, some of which comprise entire episodes, are exciting, off-kilter, and, above all, immersive—though perhaps to a fault, as they distract from the intended essence of the series, which is the emotional toll of mental illness. When Owen envisions himself as an eccentric Icelandic diplomat, for instance, Maniac is concerned more with mining his accent and wig for laughs and disorienting viewers and less with coherently relating Owen’s vision to his psychological state.

Outside of the Neberdine lab, Maniac‘s alluring vision of New York City, at once familiar and thoroughly askew, more effectively communicates Owen and Annie’s daily anguish. Owen lives in a depressingly small Roosevelt Island studio, a half-shoebox that reflects his paranoia and sense of isolation. His apartment is both retro and futuristic, like the city that surrounds it. Inelegant droids patrol sidewalks cleaning up dog waste, and antiquated-looking computers are artificially intelligent. New Yorkers hire “Friend Proxies” and rent husbands. The series homes in on the isolating nature of its crowded landscape, and submits that Owen’s psychiatric condition and Annie’s insurmountable guilt are secondary to their true ailment: loneliness.

If Maniac raises questions that it doesn’t fully answer, that’s because the series is more hung up on its whimsical world building than on the particulars of Owen and Annie’s conditions that don’t point to their loneliness. Before he submits to the trials, Owen notices coincidences everywhere, which lead him to Neberdine, to Annie, and, eventually, to heroic actions in the show’s climax. Yet series creator Patrick Somerville and director Cary Joji Fukunaga are coy about the veracity of Owen’s visions, and, more importantly, how his very real schizophrenia can be curbed by meaningful social connection.

Maniac‘s most inventive and thematically coherent stretches unfold once Owen and Annie begin their chemical trials. The pair—for initially mysterious reasons—are drawn into each other’s visions, which unfold in settings as disparate as ‘80s-era Long Island and an elven fantasy world. In addition to suggesting their cosmic connection, these shared hallucinations reveal the prevailing interests of Somerville and Fukanaga, who realize dreamscapes with a specificity that contrasts their simplistic view of Owen and Emma’s mental states. They seize the opportunity to gleefully leap between genres, placing their star actors in a variety of outlandish costumes and situations.

Fukanaga vividly renders the show’s environments, which include expanses of wilderness, claustrophobic hotel rooms, antiseptic government buildings, and crummy strip-malls. The director choreographs exhilarating shootouts, darkly comic massacres, and seductive cat-and-mouse games, even dotting Owen and Annie’s visions with subtle Easter eggs which connect to the characters’ real lives. And these sequences visibly energize the show’s leads: Hill, unshackled from Owen’s dour posture, slips comfortably into comedy, and Stone ably illustrates her range by melding gamely into each setting.

Still, for long stretches of the series, viewers are encouraged to wonder if every vision, even Annie herself, is a projection of Owen’s fractured psyche—a position Owen himself sometimes entertains. As such, one is justified in fearing that the potential revelation of such a tired twist will undermine the show’s most absorbing, emotionally resonant segments.

The Neberdine lab that houses Owen and Annie’s bodies is as bizarre as their dreams, with Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), a hilariously hapless experiment head, battling his intervening celebrity-therapist mother, Greta (Sally Field), who cruelly undermines him at every turn. And as the experiment becomes increasingly unhinged, Owen and Annie must try to escape the labyrinth of their own mind, and the once frivolous-seeming excursions into their subconscious assume an urgent, pressing quality.

The conclusion of Maniac is only slightly ambiguous, and testifies clearly to the simplified truth that embracing human connectivity opens a person up to the power of healing. This saccharine conclusion fits the series, which, while impressive for its detailed and certainly imaginative world building, rarely dares to truly confound its audience—or challenge us with an assessment of mental health that doesn’t amount to hallmark sentimentality.

Cast: Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, Sally Field, Kathleen Choe, Danny Hoch, James Monroe Iglehart Airtime: Netflix

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Review: Russian Doll Resists Becoming a Simplistic Morality Tale

The Netflix show’s premise is like a playfully morbid Escher painting.

3

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Russian Doll
Photo: Netflix

The premise of Russian Doll, in which Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying during her 36th birthday party only to awaken each time at the start of the night, suggests a playfully morbid Escher painting. In one episode, Nadia dies multiple times by falling down the same staircase and snapping her neck; in another, she learns her lesson and avoids the stairs by using the fire escape, only to later choke on a chicken wing. The character’s repetitive 24-hour cycle provides a showcase for Lyonne: The actress, uniquely suited to play a sardonic New Yorker such as Nadia, highlights the dark comedy of the character’s situation as well as her lingering emotional damage.

Nadia eventually meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who also keeps dying, and together they hunt for a way out of their peculiar situation. The discoveries they make along the way don’t always make logical sense—in part because, while Alan has some vaguely compulsive tendencies, the series isn’t specific about his personal issues. Although Nadia and Alan begin to grasp that their salvation may depend on confronting their emotional and mental damage, the series never quite provides an answer for exactly how they found themselves in these loops to begin with. Do these cycles befall other people besides Nadia and Alan? Are they an act of god? Does it all have to do with Nadia’s cat, who has recently gone missing?

The fact that Russian Doll doesn’t address the specific root of Nadia’s predicament, though, invites a number of interpretations. And by glossing over the precise details of its central mystery, the series resists reducing Nadia’s quest to a simplistic morality tale. She can be vulgar, unfiltered, and even cruel. She also indulges in a breadth of vices. Without ever suggesting that she must alter herself to meet the expectations of others, though, Russian Doll maintains an astute understanding of which aspects of Nadia are permanent and which are malleable. It suggests that the parts of her that need changing, like her self-loathing and emotional numbness, relate primarily to her own happiness rather than virtue or goodness. In a philosophical conversation with between her and Alan, the series seems to make the case that morality is relative, amorphous, and immaterial.

In resisting convenient lesson-teaching, Russian Doll sustains its central mystery and never collapses into saccharine didacticism. There’s no checklist for Nadia to attend to in order to free herself, no great wrongs that need righting. She must get better, but not necessarily to be better—though, in some instances, she does that as well. And while the resolution of her predicament is somewhat vague, it remains sweetly fulfilling, because, while the series deals in opaque supernaturalism, its protagonist is easy to root for as she fumbles toward happiness.

Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Greta Lee, Charlie Barnett Airtime: Netflix

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Review: Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy Slumps Into Mopey Mediocrity

The series is unable to render any of the visual imagination its source material practically begs for.

1.5

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The Umbrella Academy
Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

So many superhero stories—particularly the gritty Marvel shows in Netflix’s stable—focus on minimizing the weirdness of their characters, streamlining their iconic costumes, and simplifying their origin stories, in order to flaunt a kind of fashionable semi-plausibility. At first, The Umbrella Academy seems to buck this trend by remaining refreshingly off the wall. The series is populated by characters like a talking chimpanzee butler named Pogo (Adam Godley) and time-traveling assassins in children’s masks (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton). In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, an impossibly beefy man hangs out on the moon. As the series wears on, though, it reveals itself to be largely incapable of juggling such promising absurdity with the demands of the average TV superhero melodrama.

Adapted from the Eisner-winning Dark Horse comic book drawn by Gabriel Bá and written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, the series sifts through the wreckage of a superhero team that’s less a nuclear family than a family gone nuclear. In 1989, more than 40 women around the world were spontaneously impregnated and gave birth to super-powered children. The mysterious billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven such children and trained six, sans one apparently without powers, into a crime-fighting team that grew up, grew dysfunctional, and grew apart. The patriarch’s sudden death brings the estranged siblings back together, including the time-traveling Number Five (Aidan Gallagher).

Despite such an audacious premise, The Umbrella Academy quickly slumps into mopey mediocrity, unable to render any of the visual imagination the material practically begs for. Throughout, the action is sloppy, the cinematography is pedestrian, and the production design is gray and largely nondescript. Beyond a ‘50s-flavored donut shop and the apparent nonexistence of cell phones, the series barely bothers to portray its retro setting. There are brief flashes of style, but The Umbrella Academy is largely content to abuse slow-mo and ironic needle-drops. Several drug trips, the hijacking of an ice cream truck, a meeting with God, and other such moments feel more like aberrations than examples of a coherent tone, gestures toward an irreverent personality the series never sustains.

The majority of The Umbrella Academy is marred by fumbled attempts at character development and stilted performances. The protagonists rarely transcend the broadest strokes as the Netflix series dwells on the same few character beats and displays of sibling bickering and mind-numbing romance. Only Robert Sheehan’s anarchic Klaus, who takes drugs to dull his ability to commune with ghosts, and Ellen Page’s frustrated Vanya, who has no powers at all, seem to benefit from the show’s attempts to beef up its breezy source material. Their character arcs are the most heartfelt and relatable, rooted in fear and insecurity.

Occasionally, The Umbrella Academy hits on something profound about feeling inferior, abandoned, and alone, mostly in its flirtations with familial trauma. Reginald Hargreeves was a cold man, and he left lasting emotional and physical scars on each of his children; he referred to them by numbers instead of names. But rather than look to the past, the series advises its characters to let go and focus on what’s in front of them, who they’ve grown into, and how they can heal together. The problem, of course, is that the show’s past seems significantly more interesting than its present, which is confined to the same handful of locations and full of red herrings that delay obvious plot twists.

Way and Bá’s comic exhibits none of the bloat that sinks this adaptation. It’s briskly paced, with exaggerated art and striking colors that perfectly service the story’s unhinged invention and wacky detours. For whatever weirdness the TV series promises at its outset, it ends up as another distended superhero show that smooths out its source material’s idiosyncrasies until little remains of whatever made it appealing in the first place.

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Review: Amazon’s The ABC Murders Is a Formulaic Adaptation

The miniseries transforms Agatha Christie’s novel into a formulaic, adamantly bleak exercise.

1.5

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The ABC Murders
Amazon Prime

Re-fashioned by screenwriter Sarah Phelps as a beaten-down man sporting a goatee instead of his trademark moustache, the Hercule Poirot of Amazon’s three-part adaption of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is a total bore. John Malkovich, in bringing this iteration of the famed detective to life, performs accordingly, as the actor’s oddball charisma is nowhere to be seen. Here, Poirot’s dogged stoicism scans as disinterest.

While much of Poirot’s investigative work is dispassionate and mechanical, however, the story’s central mystery is deftly plotted, with Christie’s trail of breadcrumbs twisting and turning toward a clever and surprising conclusion. Poirot receives regular letters from The A.B.C. Killer, a serial murderer who leaves a trail of victims across the British countryside and seems to know Poirot personally. The killer at least has an encyclopedic knowledge of Poirot’s life before the detective fled for England from his native Belgium during the first World War.

Poirot’s time in Belgium is a secondary mystery here, one that’s hinted at in repetitive, vague flashbacks. The series leans heavily on the mystery of the detective’s traumatic past, allowing his suffering to subsume any of the character’s other discernible traits. He’s merely a tortured man, and when the story hidden in those flashbacks is finally revealed, the truth (which is an invention of this adaptation) does little to explain anything about Poirot except his misery. It doesn’t even enhance our understanding of his prodigious investigative skill.

The characters who surround Poirot are sketched with as little nuance as the detective himself. Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), for one, exists solely to eye Poirot with suspicion; the boyish Grint instills his character with a hint of adolescent insecurity that suggests a professional jealousy, but that isn’t something that’s otherwise explored in the writing. Elsewhere, the killer’s victims are caricatures, and the likely killer, a creepy-looking man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (Eamon Farron), is defined by two traits: masochism and epilepsy.

Director Alex Gabassi renders The ABC Murders’s 1930s setting with an attention to detail both large and small, from eerie Victorian-era mansions to period-specific cigarettes. Indeed, the most memorable moments from the series are touches of visual flair. A climactic chase through a rail yard cleverly uses track switches to build suspense and surprise as CGI trains thunder by, and in one of the show’s most striking (and revolting) moments, a close-up of a man’s bulbous cyst precedes a similar close-up of a runny fried egg.

The ABC Murders also makes painstaking note of a rising nativist movement. Xenophobic posters can be seen at train stations, and characters often cringe at Poirot’s French linguistic flourishes. These elements plainly gesture toward Brexit and the broader, worldwide surge of nationalism in 2019. But Phelps struggles to thematically relate the fascism that envelopes the setting to the story’s events as they unfold, or even to Poirot’s modus operandi as a detective. Poirot remains a cipher, humorlessly bearing the weight of a tragic origin story and a nation’s decay on his shoulders. In the end, The ABC Murders suffocates the enthralling, exciting qualities of a detective mystery beneath a layer of self-regarding grimness.

Cast: John Malkovich, Rupert Grint, Michael Shaeffer, Andrew Buchan, Eamon Farren, Jack Farthing, Tara Fitgerald Airtime: Amazon Prime

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