Television, this spring, has been full of stories of real-life people struggling against the petty matters of their respective realities and reinventing themselves as heroic figures. On “The Dropout,” Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) pushed past the limits of science to declare herself a genius, no matter how unrealistic her putative accomplishments; on “Inventing Anna,” Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) made herself into a wealthy woman of leisure, despite having neither wealth nor, in her endless gyrating calculations, leisure time. And on “WeCrashed,” Rebekah Neumann (Anne Hathaway)…
I know. It seems out-of-place to situate Rebekah as the protagonist of the Apple TV Plus show about the rise and fall of WeWork, the coworking startup founded by her husband Adam (played by Jared Leto). She’s a part of the story of the company’s eventual implosion, but he certainly was at the heart of the news coverage. And yet the clever thing about “WeCrashed” — a show that dropped its final episode on April 22, and one that works vastly better than it might have — is that it turns its story less into a double act than into Rebekah’s show. It’s Adam who had the genius for convincing people to believe in his fantasy. But the ease of a trickster god’s mastery is less interesting than the need of a mere mortal. And, with Hathaway’s performance at its center, “WeCrashed” found the human side of a business story.
The Neumanns begin the series together, in freefall, before we go back in time to see what preceded disaster. The first episode opens close to the end of their public story, as the couple head into the so-called “WeWork Galactic Headquarters” after Adam has lost the confidence of his board. In the car ride to their fate, she squeezes his hand and works through a series of sympathetic expressions, even as he doesn’t meet her eye. She’s playing to an audience she cannot see, performing her love for him perhaps only for her own benefit.
From the first, it’s a big performance from a star who does “big” well. The first episode concludes with Rebekah Neumann commanding an underling to “Call the lawyers… All of them,” delivered with a Joan Crawford intensity intended to thrill. (Moments later we get a needle-drop of Katy Perry’s “Roar” — a cleverly deployed pop anthem expansive enough to contain all of Rebekah’s ambitions but simplistic enough to make clear those ambitions remained undefined.) Hathaway gets the opportunity to get more granular in subsequent episodes, and to show us just what Rebekah’s imperiousness is covering. We go on to learn that she is a would-be actor who never found her stage, a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow who feels humiliated by the superstar that she can never be, a yogini trying to heal the world in order to begin to heal herself. Adam is, throughout, unknowable — a salesman who simply has the bug to build businesses, with no “Rosebud” origin story, nothing more complicated than the desire for more. And it is the mission of Rebekah’s life to apply to his success a mantra or a philosophy, to lend herself a purpose that she hasn’t found and cannot find in her own endeavors.
As written, the series favors Rebekah — which is to say that it filets her. Adam is just an oddball, but Rebekah is a worthy object of study. A New Age thinker who applied to her husband’s office-space company a mission of transformative change, Rebekah didn’t bring down the company, but she did bring it plenty of attention before the end times. And Hathaway has given viewers exactly what we didn’t know we wanted from “WeCrashed”: Her voice dropped so thrillingly low that everyone within earshot must know it’s a put-on, Hathaway’s Rebekah is a genuine phony, someone who really believes her own myth, at least in the moments between panic.
Hathaway isn’t a stranger to playing vanity (“The Devil Wears Prada”) or delusion (“Rachel Getting Married”). But there’s a collision between the two traits at work here that’s rich and delicious. Hathaway’s work reminded me most of Lisa Kudrow’s masterful performance over the two seasons of “The Comeback.” There, Kudrow’s blustery sitcom-star character was constantly confronted with the fact of how little the world thought of her, and she perennially attempted to swallow the hurt, all while knowing she was being watched. Here, Rebekah lives inside a fishbowl of her own making: She wanted to be a well-known person, and she got her wish. And her every pitched-down utterance is a performance for a public that, frustratingly, tolerates her presence but isn’t willing to get interested in her show.
Every time Rebekah is reminded of the obligations and the little humiliations that come with that status — balancing power with actual corporate types at the office, trying not to upstage her husband at press events, being held responsible for the things she says in public — she suffers a small moment of destabilization, visible on Hathaway’s endlessly expressive face before she allows herself to settle into placidity. It’s hard being right all the time when the world gets the intentions that you’ve set so very wrong.
And it’s easier to simply operate in the backchannel: One of the cleverest parts of Hathaway’s performance is the breezily conspiratorial tone she takes with WeWork’s human resources department whenever an employee hasn’t seen reality precisely the way she wants it to be seen. “Bad energy,” she tells the H.R. officer in one instance, before a peremptory “Thank you!” Rebekah can’t control much, but she can control who gets to share her space, and she perceives her power to fire — perhaps the only real power she has — as a sort of teaching tool. That WeWork is intended to heal the whole world while being staffed by a small number of people of whom Rebekah personally approves, with the uninitiated sent into the wilderness, is an irony she cannot see.
I’ll admit to a bias. As an arts writer by trade and temperament, I’m simply more interested in Rebekah’s using the early office space to attempt to launch an alternative theater than in the machinations of WeWork undercutting other lessees as the company grew. And as an observer of human nature, I am more interested in an individual under pressure attempting to conceal a crisis of identity than in a story about The Economy Under Late Capitalism.
I found that “The Dropout,” on Hulu, merged the two, telling a unified story of personal crisis against the backdrop of the chaos of the startup economy. And “WeCrashed” is more piecey, working less well as a whole. Leto, playing the character whose passion drives the enterprise, is tamped-down relative to recent film work he’s done. It’s a choice that serves him better than his recent turns in “The Little Things” and “House of Gucci” did. But this mild performance can raise the question of what the world saw in WeWork. The action of the show becomes, instead, our discovering what Adam saw in Rebekah: Her drive, her refusal to brook compromise, her endless eagerness to purge nonbelievers and to push herself closer to the center of the frame.
All of these traits are symptoms of problems in the society we’ve allowed narcissists to make in their image; they also, still, feel tangential to what viewers might have previously understood to be the WeWork story. By series’ end, the company simply seems overleveraged and too avaricious. Rebekah’s interventions, though not insubstantial, didn’t kill the company — she gave Adam a language for world conquest, but his greed is his own — so much as make its death more fascinatingly tormented.
And yet in prising out of the WeWork story a character as rich as Rebekah, “WeCrashed” and Hathaway both deserve praise. WeWork is a company that at its height thrived on human capital: Warm bodies filling its offices, tapping away on MacBooks, drinking on-tap kombucha in exchange for unreclaimable hours of life. Its customers, not its real estate, became the product; “We” was a two-letter lie. Rebekah, in this show’s telling, sees “We” as describing her and her husband — and might just, at times, prefer the pronoun to be “I,” wanting the power to shape reality even as she grows less certain of who she is outside the corporation to which she’s tied. She thrives on image, and metabolizes blows to her sense of self with the instant impulse toward revenge. “WeCrashed,” dominated by Hathaway, ends up less than useful as a diagnosis of where the economy ended up. But it is exhilarating as a portrait of just where We are.
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