maniac (2018)

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Maniac is a trippy sort love story. There is a man, Owen, played by Jonah Hill. And there is a woman, Anna, played by Emma Stone. The man struggles with schizophrenic episodes. He finds it difficult to know what is real. The woman struggles with moving past her sister’s death. She knows all too well what is real. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how to move on from that reality.

The two meet at the intake of a pharmaceutical trial. She is there to score more of the drug that allows her to relive the death of her sister. He is there in the hopes of learning how to live.

The world in which they live is a wackadoo place, equal parts Douglas Adams and William Gibson. It is the future as we once imagined it. Neon signs, clunky keyboards, blinking cursors. The IBM of all possible worlds. There are, too, scattered throwaway gags—like the adBuddies or the Statue of Extra Liberty—that recall something of the whimsy, and benevolent cynicism, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The trial where Owen and Anna meet is run by Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. The culture here is American Japanese. Or possible Japanese American. The head scientist is Dr. Mantleray, a hassled and mother-wrought man played by Justin Thoreux. His second-in command is Dr. Fujita, a no-nonsense woman with a bowl-cut and giant glasses played by Sonoya Mizuno. The AI that helps runs their experiment is voiced by Sally Field, who also happens to play Dr. Mantleray’s mother. The series, for all its technological trappings, is a deeply Jungian text. Everything is archetype.

During the trial, Owen and Anna and the other subjects receive three drugs. These drugs are labelled ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. They are meant, respectively, to force a subject to relive their deepest trauma, learn the defense mechanisms (lies) they built for themselves in response to that trauma, and enable them to move on from that trauma. Each instance of the trial we disappear for part of an episode into the minds of Owen and Anna. We experience their pain as various forms of film genre. Indie realist, neo-noir, and high fantasy. If you ever longed to see Jonah Hill as a brooding, existential thug, or Emma Stone as a pointy-eared, and delightfully bitter elf, here you go.

This is psychotherapy done with a healthy dose of cinematography.

Loosely based on a Norwegian comedy show of the same name, this version of Maniac is run by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers). Each has made a name for themselves with series seen as existential and vaguely, if not as in the case of The Leftovers–literally– apocalyptic. Maniac has something of that feel, as well, with each episode’s mind-bending journey through pain and deception, leading us ever onwards towards a sense of revelation. It never quite gets there, but then, as we all know, therapy is a process, not a destination.

to all the boys i’ve loved before (dir. susan johnson, 2018)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.


Based on a wildly successful young adult book of the same name, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before contains a sprinkling of those tropes typical of much YA fiction—a dead parent, a charming parent, a bitch, a jock, and a character in love, perhaps a little too much, with books and their own imagination. Happily, these tropes, and any misgivings one might have about them, get swept aside both by the charms of the young actors and the tendency of the film to sit with them in moments of complicated emotion and allow them, and us, to forge a real connection with these characters.

Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is a sixteen-year-old girl in love with her older sister’s boyfriend. To deal with her tormented feelings she writes this boy a letter. She does not send it to him, though. As she says, it is only for her. It is a way to work through something for herself. In a way, she says, it has nothing to do with him.

Lara Jean is an experienced imaginer of love. She has written four other such love letters to four other such boys. She keeps them all, sealed in addressed envelopes, in a small box given to her by a long-dead mother. She might be, I suppose, writing as much to her imagined mom as she is writing to these imagined boys.

It is an error common to most—this desire to live in one’s imagined version of the world—but in the form of crushes, I think, it is an affliction most often imagined as being a disease peculiar to teenage girls, child’s play if you will. This is poppycosh, of course. Crushes are violent things. They are, often, literally crushing. You don’t have to be a boy or a girl to experience them, nor must you have a crush only on a boy or girl, either. You can have a crush on a way of life, a forgotten home, a lost parent. A crush is at heart only a longing for a world that seems impossible.

The thing you know must happen, in a story with secret letters, does happen. Lara Jean faints at her first confrontation with the consequences of her imagination. One of the boys she loved before shows up holding one of her letters and down she goes. When she comes to, there’s his big dumb real face. Beyond him, there is yet another boy she loves approaching–her sister’s recently ex-boyfriend, in fact. Lara Jean does what she believes she must. She kisses the boy with the big dumb face who she used to have a crush on in order to distract the boy she still has a crush on from knowing how she really feels about him.

There are scattered scenes throughout of Lara Jean having conversations with her imagined versions of these boys. They pop up in the hallways of school, sometimes. Mostly in her bedroom. One of them one time sees her look out the window at the real version of himself. The imagined boy tells the real girl that he knows he’s more important to her than the real boy. This is the heart of the film, I think, and I longed for more such scenes. One imagines the book is full of them. But the film does what it needs to do, I think, if not what I wanted it to do. Later on, when Lara Jean’s father speaks of her mother, we see how hard it is for him, for anyone of any age, to share what is real. “You deserve to know about who your mom really was,” he says. “But I was too sad for too long to share those things with you.”

Lana Condor had a very small, if brightly fashioned, part in X-Men Apocalypse as Jubilee—one of my favorite characters from the X-Men cartoon series I watched religiously with my sister in the early-to-mid 90s. Jubilee is a young girl in a long, bright yellow coat with giant neon hoop earrings and the power to shoot electricity from the tips of her fingers. There is something of this ability to spark that seems innate in Ms. Condor. Her face has such exquisite expressiveness, her nose the most miraculous scrunchability. You always know exactly how confused and wondrous she feels. Her arms twist in elegantly awkard arcs. She plays nervous well. And when called on to be still, she does that, too. Listen to her voice. Hear how it changes depending on who she’s talking to. You will very likely have a cursh on her by the end of the film. I imagine many boys and girls will be writing letters to her.

Sometimes I imagine everything I write is a letter to someone. In this case, I suppose, I have been writing to you.

Good luck out there, today, whoever you are, in your attempts to interact with the real world. It’s the only place where anything really happens.