Some films remain in your memory long after you’ve seen them and some of them get even better when you think back on them than they were on first viewing. Some films dissolve in your memory shortly after they finish. Others, like Manic, dissolve while you’re watching them, becoming so nebulous that you can hardly bring yourself to keep up with what’s going on, let alone form any rational critical reaction. It’s not so much that Manic is a bad film, it’s just so horribly familiar - yet another drama about troubled teens with the mildly unusual setting of an adolescent secure unit. The Breakfast Club meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was probably the sort of result that director Jordan Melamed was aiming for. Unfortunately, he missed.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, familiar from 3rd Rock From The Sun, plays Lyle, a ‘troubled’ seventeen year old who has expressed his inner rage in a rather unfortunate manner and caved in the head of one of his schoolmates with a baseball bat. This lands him in Northwood Mental Hospital under the avuncular eye of Dr David Monroe (Cheadle), along with several other ‘troubled’ teenagers including poor little rich kid Chad (Bacall), black fingernailed Goth Sara (Rivas), withdrawn Native American Kenny (Lightning), street fighting meathead Mike (Henson) and dreamy-eyed shy girl with self-esteem problems Tracey (Deschanel). Much group therapy and inner searching ensues accompanied by a lot of basketball, even more shouting, quite a bit of furniture abuse, rather too much hugging and some quite alarming violence from an unexpected quarter.
If you think this sounds familiar and that you’ve seen the film before, then you’re probably right. We’re back to territory which has been explored many times since Rebel Without A Cause back in 1955. No-one understands me and my parents don’t love me and I can’t get a fuck or I fuck too much with the wrong people and I’m full of inner rage and I don’t have a future and I don’t like my life and I hurt so much inside and nobody loves me and so on, ad nauseum till the end of eternity. Endless whining, ceaseless self-examination and an almost complete lack of common sense. When I was a child in deepest West Yorkshire, there was a woman who lived near us called Mrs Battersby. Whenever anything happened to her children, she had a mantra which, to the best of my knowledge, never changed. She’d look stern, refuse anything even vaguely resembling parental affection, wag her finger and say “Well, that’s life that is, think on !” Now, frightening as I find it, I think I might be turning into Mrs Battersby, because that’s exactly how I felt about these kids after 100 minutes of Manic. There’s not enough psychological insight into any of these characters to make them seem anything but fucked-up teenagers, and do we really need another film telling us all about them ? Maybe it shows a want of compassion on my part – and a number of years as a teacher didn’t make me particularly sympathetic to teenage angst – but, watching this film, I rarely thought that there was much at stake.
The only character who makes you care is Dr Monroe. Don Cheadle has been a very interesting and somewhat underachieving actor for a number of years now and it’s nice to see him in a role which he can get his teeth into. Alone among the characters, Monroe seems like a real person rather than a collection of not-very-interesting neuroses. There’s a fantastic moment when he loses it completely and cracks up, throwing furniture around and threatening all and sundry. It shouldn’t work, but Cheadle makes it seem natural and cathartic. It’s just a shame that he’s adrift in such uninteresting surroundings.
This didn’t have to be such a mediocre film. I think that audiences are desperate, more than ever in the troubled times we find ourselves inhabiting, for something to care about in movies and this kind of film gives them an opportunity to satisfy that need. But in order to care, we have to connect with the characters to some extent – even if they’re not sympathetic, they have to be alive and magnetic – and the teenagers here, despite some committed performances, are very difficult to care about. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are able actors but they can’t make bricks out of straw. Lyle’s reason for being so cross turns out to be that his dad beat him up - as if we needed to be told – and the relationship he forms with Tracey just doesn’t ring true. It’s nicely underplayed but the two characters don’t seem to form any believable bond and before we can say “plot device”, they’re cosying up under the covers. Mike is an aggressive tosser, Chad is a would-be profound intellectual who can’t keep his mouth shut and the other kids are ciphers at best. The only one who I felt anything for was Kenny, largely because he has the good sense not to say much. But he’s shot for sentimental reactions throughout and his final scene is a complete dog.
Jordan Melamed isn’t a bad director exactly. He works quite well with some of the group therapy scenes and he gives Cheadle the space to build up a character. But you could tell from watching a single scene that Manic is his first film. It was made on Digital Video and is almost entirely shot using hand-held camera techniques. This leads to the classic ‘shakycam’ effect which gives some people motion sickness and tends to look distinctly self-indulgent to the most patient viewer. Hand-held is a technique which can be hugely effective in moderation but using it for the duration of an entire film is unnecessary and, ultimately, irritating. It doesn’t serve the actors well either – hardly five minutes goes by without one of them getting a wobbly extreme close up. By pushing them into our faces, Melamed seems to think that we will care more about them. But it’s such a patently artificial device that it actually distances us. Nor are the editing choices always wise. There’s a nice moment when the two girls begin talking and they get a rhythm going that’s very likeable, but it’s ruined by several needless cutaway shots that take us out of the scene. You finish the film feeling dazed and overwhelmed, but not in a good way. One thing I can guarantee – any goodwill you have towards teenage problems will have ebbed away once you’ve sat through Manic.
Manic may not have pulled ‘em in at the box office when it opened in 2002 but it seems to have gained a good reputation in the intervening time. MGM obviously agree with this assessment and have given it a DVD with a decent transfer and some worthwhile extra features. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the same company to come up with a Special Edition of Red River - proof, if it were needed, that whatever the Almighty might be doing, he certainly isn’t listening to my prayers.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The self-consciously gritty style of the photography leads to an image which is intentionally packed with noise and looks grimy. This has been faithfully transferred onto DVD and the image offers plenty of detail and a pleasingly varied palate of colours. A very good transfer, bearing in mind the difficulties of the source material.
The only soundtrack offered in Dolby Stereo Surround and it does a very good job. Given that the film largely consists of people talking – well, shouting – all that is needed is a clean track which respects the dialogue and that’s what we get here. Not much happening on the surround channels except when the music kicks in, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from this kind of movie.
A number of special features are included on the DVD. Firstly, we get an audio commentary from Jordan Melamed and the co-writer and co-star Michael Bacall. This is quite interesting, very relaxed and, as is the way of these things, rather self-congratulatory. Still, Melamed offers some valuable insights into the use of Digital Video for filming and he is very gracious about his cast. Bacall sounds like an over-excited teenager, which is probably a fairly accurate description. Secondly, there are a collection of ten deleted scenes with an optional commentary, all presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. These are all more of the same and it’s easy to see why they were considered unnecessary. Actually, it’s a long time since I saw a deleted scene and thought “My god, that should have been in the film” – probably when I watched Session 9 last year, unless the gorgeous pre-release version of My Darling Clementine counts which I guess, in a way, it does. Thirdly, there is a dispensable making-of featurette which is the usual EPK nonsense. Finally, we get theatrical trailers for Manic, Out of Time, Together and the amusingly silly Camp, a much more entertaining film about teenagers.
There are English and Spanish subtitles for the film but not for the extra features. The film is divided into 24 chapter stops.
Manic desperately wants to be gripping, gritty drama but it’s far too familiar to be anything but tedious. Don Cheadle’s superb performance makes up for some of the movie’s failings but that’s not enough to make it worth seeing. The DVD is pretty good and anyone who, for whatever reason, likes the film will find it a very worthwhile purchase.