It’s hard to judge whether Jared Leto’s performance in “WeCrashed” is the most convincing portrayal of an Israeli ever, because the jury is still out on whether WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann is actually human.
The Israeli American with an ego the size of a planet leapt from the business pages to front pages with the rapid global success of his startup – and from there to podcasts, books and documentaries after he went from credit lines to punch lines.
Yet while Leto may look more like a hirsute Jim Carrey than the now 42-year-old Neumann, he does capture the would-be business guru’s “Gru from ‘Despicable Me’” accent. And he definitely conveys the magnetism of the kibbutznik-turned-real-estate-mogul who wanted to achieve nothing less than to elevate the world’s consciousness, whatever that meant. And all by leasing out office space to predominantly young people searching for a sense of community and free kombucha.
It was a whirlwind unicorn ride, one that saw WeWork go from pitches to riches to ditches in the space of a decade – before Neumann was forced to step down from the company in humiliating fashion following a disastrous IPO in the fall of 2019.
“WeCrashed” (Apple TV+) is one of three series I’ve been watching over the past week about infamous startup founders who crashed and burned in decidedly Hollywood-friendly fashion – the others being Hulu’s “The Dropout,” about Elizabeth Holmes (whose medical company pledged to revolutionize the blood-testing industry, but had one rather glaring problem – the technology didn’t work); and Showtime’s “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” on Travis Kalanick, the ousted founder of the ride-sharing company.
While I can honestly say I do not want to hear the phrases “disrupt the market,” “hustle harder” and “burn rate” again for a very long time, the shows together comprise a fascinating trilogy about modern-day innovators trying to break down the gray gates of the starchy old business world, but falling short due to toxic levels of solipsism.
Funnily enough, I was at a dinner party last week that also revolved around startups – though this one turned out to be something of a last supper. The professional chef who brilliantly catered the evening had decided to hang up her kitchen whites and go into high-tech. Why? Because she was fed up with working twice as hard as her friends and only earning half as much. She wanted a piece of the startup pie they’re all apparently feasting on. (There’s no truth in the rumor that she’s starting a right-wing Israeli search engine and calling it Netanyahoo.)
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It must appear a rather glamorous, well-remunerated life looking in from the outside. However, as most startups enjoy a success rate comparable to Nic Cage movies, hopefully she will not be throwing away the saucepans just yet.
Perhaps shows like “WeCrashed,” “The Dropout” and “Super Pumped” will offer a reality check for her and anyone else wanting to become richer than Croesus after launching a startup or landing a job at one. Then again, maybe they’ll end up serving as adverts for wannabe entrepreneurs, because none of the series are shy at showing the trappings of success, even it is only fleeting. They give us a world of private jets and mega-yachts, where the dividing line between an inspirational CEO and cult leader is awfully blurred.
One thing these young entrepreneurs are definitely disrupting is TV schedules. “Super Pumped” is set to be an anthology series, with the already-commissioned second season reportedly focusing on the relationship between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his COO Sheryl Sandberg. HBO, meanwhile, has its own Facebook series, “Doomsday Machine,” in the works, based on the recent book “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.” And I will be amazed if a series about the creators of Tinder isn’t in the works somewhere as you read this.
What’s notable about the three current shows is that, in contrast to the people they’re portraying, they all take remarkably conventional approaches to telling their stories. I enjoyed them all to differing degrees, but can’t help feel they all left some money on the table – the cardinal sin for any business, of course.
“Super Pumped” may be a little too testosterone-fueled for some tastes, but I loved to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting in touch with his inner asshat (reader, do not try this at home) as he storms around San Francisco spouting nonsense like: “This is the thing about changing the world. The world will never change – it’s going to dig in its heels and tell you no and try to crush you.”
Yes, there is much talk in all three shows about changing the world and building a better tomorrow. Well, that “better tomorrow” sure looks as screwed up as it ever was – a place where the people running the Oscars give out tougher punishments than the UN Security Council. (I suppose we should all be grateful that Will Smith isn’t Russian; otherwise, he’d be blaming bad actors and saying Chris Rock’s face assaulted his right hand.)
Nowhere are those ambitions to change the world expressed more often and more earnestly than in the eight-part “WeCrashed.” The odd thing is how the series’ creators, Lee Eisenberg and Drew Crevello, see Neumann’s American wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway) as the key figure in this drama, with the two actual founders, Adam and Miguel McKelvey (Kyle Marvin), shunted to the side.
Perhaps we can apportion some of this to the decision to cast a movie star such as Hathaway in the role and then having to beef it up. (Hathaway, by the way, is excellent as the New Agey cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow, delivering her best performance since Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” back in 2008).
Eisenberg and Crevello want us to know that Adam’s success would not have been achieved without Rebekah (her husband prefers the biblical form, “Rivka,” when not calling her “motek,” or sweetie, in a rare moment of Hebrew), turning “WeCrashed” into a celebration of this odd-couple relationship. Yet we shouldn’t know more about her backstory and work struggles than we do about Adam and his “brother from five different mothers” Miguel.
Yes, it’s fine to suggest that the Neumann romance was less John and Yoko and more Paul and Linda in terms of its effect on the business. But at times, watching “WeCrashed” feels like the equivalent of tuning into a show about the Nazis that has decided to focus instead on Eva Braun. (Due to a dearth of giant leading men in Hollywood, one thing the series can’t show is how physically imposing Adam Neumann and McKelvey were – they may not have been the smartest guys in the room, but they were definitely the tallest.)
In fairness, Miguel McKelvey is invariably brushed out of most stories about WeWork – the same happened in last year’s Hulu documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.” But “WeCrashed” really needed to work harder to try to give us some kind of understanding about who Adam Neumann is and what (other than very expensive Tequila) makes him tick.
In the first episode of the excellent “WeCrashed” podcast that accompanies the series, Eisenberg – who is best-known for his work on the U.S. version of “The Office,” which might explain why it is much funnier than you might expect – argues that Adam Neumann’s formative years on a kibbutz in southern Israel were his equivalent of Rosebud in “Citizen Kane”: a time of childhood innocence and happiness he would subsequently yearn for and try to recreate. But we don’t get any sense of that past beyond the odd reference to communal living and the Israel Navy sweatshirt Adam wears in one brief scene.
Maybe the reason Rebekah occupies center stage is that her character is just more readable than that of Adam’s. In this ultimate “fake it till you make it” story, even by the end of eight episodes we’re still none the wiser about who the real Adam Neumann is – or what planet he is from.
There will be blood
“The Dropout” probably faced the toughest challenge out of the three series: recounting a story that was still very much in play as they went into production last year due to Holmes’ trial in California – for which she was convicted of fraud in January and now awaits sentencing in September.
Much like “WeCrashed,” which opens with a decisive WeWork board meeting in September 2019, “The Dropout” starts at the beginning of the end: Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) providing her court testimony while facing charges. From there we go back in time to a formative event in her Texan childhood and then to her studies at Stanford University – and the title gives a little spoiler about that.
But the drama only truly begins when she launches her Theranos startup and aims to revolutionize the blood-testing business. Anyone who knows anything about Holmes’ rise and fall will know that bloodsucking became her business modus operandi, every spectacular successful funding round leaving her more morally bankrupt.
Seyfried is excellent as the biotech entrepreneur who starts off with the noblest of intentions – wanting to make health care accessible to all – before going off the rails. But there are great actors wherever you look here, including William H. Macy (auditioning for a “Coneheads” remake judging by his character’s receding hairline), Elizabeth Marvel as Holmes’ cold-blooded mom and Laurie Metcalf as the Stanford professor who plays a crucial role in making the case against Holmes. And one unexpected star in “Dropout” and “WeCrashed” is The Wall Street Journal, whose reporting proves pivotal in both cases.
If you only have the bandwidth for one startup show right now, “The Dropout” is the one to invest time in. However, despite its flaws there’s also something about “WeCrashed” that is hard to resist. Watch it with someone you love for the most disruptive of small-screen date nights.
“WeCrashed” is on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every Friday until April 22. “The Dropout” and “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” air on Hulu and Showtime, respectively, in the United States.