The Rise and Fall of WeWork Founder Adam Neumann Makes for Engrossing Viewing

'WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn' is an eye-opening look at the excesses of its Israeli CEO Adam Neumann, while 'Shiva Baby' is an acerbically funny Jewish comedy

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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WeWork founder and CEO Adam Neumann.
Adam Neumann. Became ambitious.Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Don’t quote me on this (especially to the Interior Ministry), but I’m pretty sure there are certain sentences I could publish that would lead to the instant revocation of my Israeli citizenship.

For instance, if I were to suggest that hummus isn’t really an Israeli creation and Moses didn’t actually come down from Mount Sinai with a recipe for it scrawled on a spare tablet – that might do it.

Or if I mentioned that any Mizrahi pop song can make even the shortest car ride feel like an eternity – that might do it.

Or if I revealed that the secret building work currently taking place at Israel’s mysterious facility in Dimona is actually a Gal Gadot cloning factory – that would definitely do it.

Likewise, I’m pretty sure that any harsh criticism of beloved Israeli TV shows likes “Fauda” or “Shtisel” would also hasten my departure from these shores – which is perhaps why I’ve not been rushing to write about the third season of the latter, which recently dropped globally on Netflix.

To be clear, I am expecting to enjoy it. After all, what’s not to love about the adventures of the Shtisels – perhaps the most kindhearted religious family to grace our screens since the Waltons finally said good night to us in the 1980s.

I’m also genuinely intrigued that there’s going to be a U.S. remake of the show – even if it’s being pitched as a modern-day “Romeo & Juliet” with a religious twist rather than being a genuine remake (“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Let me guess, at that Goddamn yeshiva again”). Because the world needs more decent, plausibly conflicted characters like Akiva and Shulem Shtisel, and Giti and Ruchama Weiss on its screens, not just hotheads like Doron Kavillio, right?

In truth, I will watch season 3, but only once my frustrations with the Haredi community have died down. I was really hoping “Shtisel” would address some of the issues that have made the ultra-Orthodox community headline news in Israel over the past year – the widespread noncompliance with COVID regulations in many Haredi heartlands; its youngsters becoming increasingly drawn to a far-right, anti-Arab agenda – and, from what I gather, the show has avoided most of those as potential plotlines.

That leaves the series potentially open to accusations of “blackwashing” the Haredi community and not showing the uglier elements within its society (certainly not an accusation you could level against another Netflix show starring Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”).

For me, it’s a bit like making a show about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and focusing on the pastry chef rather than anything more, well, unsavory, that may or may not have been taking place in his kitchen.

I’m not expecting Akiva Shtisel to be setting fire to buses in Jerusalem or painting iconic portraits of Bezalel Smotrich. But I think we all could have benefited from a little more reality being mixed into one of our best-loved TV soap-dramas.

‘WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn’

Something else I probably shouldn’t mock if I want to be allowed to stay in Israel is the desert mirage that is “Startup Nation.” There are certain parts of the country where you can’t throw a spoonful of hummus without hitting the CEO of some incubator-backed high-tech firm who no doubt toasted Passover with hopeful cries of “Next year in profit!”

Ironically, the country’s most famous young entrepreneur doesn’t actually live here – even though he’s such a quintessential Israeli, he should be appearing on the country’s 200-shekel bill, even though that would probably mean it would be worth about 20 shekels in a few days’ time.

Yes, I’m referring to Adam Neumann, the 41-year-old WeWork founder who established an empire in the blink of an eye and lost it just as quickly. His meteoric rise and fall is chronicled in the engrossing new Hulu documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” which finally answers the question “What does a 6-foot, 5-inch tool look like?”

Even though Neumann’s humiliatingly public demise took place way back in the fall of 2019, which feels like a lifetime ago due to COVID, you’re going to be seeing a lot more about him on your screens in the next year or two.

Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway are set to star in an Apple TV drama based on last year’s podcast “WeCrashed”; Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg in “Succession”) is set to appear in a rival show based on the upcoming book “The Cult of We: WeWork and the Great Start-Up Delusion”; and Charles Randolph (“Bombshell,” “The Big Short”) is reportedly working on a screenplay for Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions – and if they need a title, I’ll give them “The Ibex of Wall Street” for free. Funnily enough, as I picture Neumann walking barefoot around New York with his long flowing hair, it’s impossible not to recall another film, “Greystoke,” in which Christopher Lambert played Tarzan trying to fit into polite society. Either that or an elongated Patrick Dempsey of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame.

Even though he has reportedly yet to watch the Hulu doc (according to the New York Post, so it must be true), Neumann – pronounced “Newman” – would probably believe himself to be worthy of such attention. This, after all, is the man who could say lines like “Our trajectory is like Amazon’s. Except our market is larger and our growth is faster” or “The next revolution is going to be the We revolution” with a straight face.

The original WeWork building at 154 Grand St. in Soho, New York.Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

“$47 Billion Unicorn” starts at the end, with Neumann recording a video that will encourage investors to back the IPO that might keep his company afloat, after it slumped from that titular $47 billion to near-bankruptcy in the space of six weeks in the summer of 2019.

No matter how hard he tries, the charismatic CEO cannot nail the pitch. That’s not altogether surprising, since the speech consists of some corporate BS about reinventing the world of real estate – when it could be argued that WeWork’s greatest skill was slapping its logo on crumbling building exteriors and thinking up concepts based around a two-letter word: WeLive, WeGrow, WeBank.

We should be grateful that the money for his vision ran out before they got to WeWee, subletting portable toilets, but sorry that it hadn’t run out before the company coined the term “CWeO” for employees who oversaw specific regions.

That tag was created by Rebekah Neumann (née Paltrow – yes, she’s gloopy Gwyneth’s cousin), the Yoko to Adam’s John in this particular tale. If you know anything about the WeWork mythology, you’ll know that on their first date she called him out for being “full of shit” – but then seemingly proceeded to amplify it when she retroactively “became” one of the company’s founders.

The actual founders were Adam Neumann and Miguel Angel McKelvey, a 6-foot, 8-inch architecture graduate from Oregon who is strangely absent from Jed Rothstein’s film – perhaps because, as McKelvey himself once put it, he liked to be “next to the center of attention.”

Adam Neumann’s endeavors to turn WeWork from a one-building operation in New York City to a worldwide behemoth with greater growth than Stretch Armstrong were recorded on camera at every turn – which is a documentarian’s dream and an entrepreneur’s worst nightmare when things turn bad.

WeWorkers: Adam Neumann with his wife Rebekah in 2018. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris /GETTY IMAGES

The many messianic musings of Mr. Neumann are reminiscent of Keith Raniere’s speeches in last year’s disturbing HBO documentary series “The Vow” about the Nxivm cult (but without the illegality, I should hasten to add).

Also like in “The Vow,” you’re struck by the depressing realization that the core idea behind both ventures was an incredibly worthy one, before becoming corrupted along the way. In Nxivm, it went from trying to establish a more caring type of businessperson to treating women like sex slaves; in WeWork, it went from creating a vibrant sense of community for young workers turned off by corporate America to a tap from which the New Agey Neumanns could legally siphon off large amounts of cash.

Among the business experts and journalists poring over where it all went wrong for Adam Neumann – in this case, “wrong” means reportedly walking away with a check for $1.7 billion if he wins an ongoing court battle – the pick is marketing professor Scott Galloway, whose presence should be mandatory in any documentary, whatever the subject. As he says of the official S-1 form that Neumann submitted as a precursor for taking WeWork public: “It felt more like a novel written by someone who was ‘shrooming’ than an S-1.”

Along with the copious amounts of footage of Neumann smiling to camera as he walks around his offices and the work summer camps perfectly described as “Fyre done well,” there are plenty of disgruntled former employees and “members” – aka customers – spilling the beans on life with the former kibbutznik who once told his U.S. immigration lawyer, “Would I want to be prime minister of Israel? Maybe.” (In an irony he would surely appreciate, the dining hall at Kibbutz Nir Am near the Gaza Border, where he spent his teenage years, is now a communal working space.)

My favorite anecdote, among many, was about what happened when the, um, “galactic headquarters” in NYC hired a full-time barista. I won’t spoil the punch line for you here, but it’s a wonderful example of what happens in “Unicorn Land” where one man’s ego drives everything.

Perhaps Neumann’s Israeli driving instructor in Kfar Sava summed him up best when he once said of him, “Either Adam will end up in jail or he’ll become a millionaire.” There’s still time for both.

‘Shiva Baby’

One of my favorite mainstream Hollywood comedies of the past decade is Shawn Levy’s “This is Where I Leave You” – a ridiculously star-studded film from 2014 in which the Altman family (including Jason Bateman and Tiny Fey) gather for the shivah of their dad. It’s not subtle, especially the matriarch character played by Jane Fonda, but it uses the surprisingly under-utilized device of forcing a warring family to hang out together for seven days to great comic effect.

At the other end of the scale, we now have Emma Seligman’s scrappy indie “Shiva Baby,” a very funny comedy set at the “after-party” following the death of a member of an East Coast Jewish community. As she attends with her ever-hectoring mother (a wonderful Polly Draper, spitting out lines like “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps – and not in a good way” with relish) and benevolent, buffet-loving dad (Fred Melamed), Danielle (a mesmeric Rachel Sennott) will soon wish herself dead as everything that possibly could go wrong for her at the post-funeral gathering does indeed go wrong.

This includes an awkward renewal of acquaintances with former girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon – stealing scenes again just like she did as “Triple A” in the wonderful “Booksmart”), and a “Can I just hide behind this pile of bagels and hope no one notices me?” moment when the “sugar daddy” Danielle’s in a remunerative relationship with also turns up at the shivah – with his stunning “shiksa princess” wife, Kim (Dianna “Glee” Agron), not far behind him, weighed down by their perennially screaming baby daughter and an inability to pronounce the word “rugelach.”

With its jet-black Jewish humor (“Oh, you guys were at the Holocaust Museum. You look so happy,” Danielle chirps to an elderly woman showing off photos of herself and the deceased) and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-esque escalating tensions that at times feel more like a horror movie than a comedy, “Shiva Baby” is to die for.

Director Emma Seligman at the U.S. premiere of "Shiva Baby" last year.Credit: Frazer Harrison - AFP

“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” is available via Hulu. “Shiva Baby” is available on VOD in America, and (hopefully) in Israel soon.

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