Adam Neumann, an Israeli-American businessman, lived for money — especially money not his own. He co-founded a co-working start-up, WeWork, in 2010. In less than a decade, he raised more than $10 billion, charming the hard-nosed moneybags: JP Morgan Chase, Benchmark Capital, SoftBank, and many more. In January 2019, WeWork was valued at $47 billion; less than nine months later, the board fired Adam.
But this descent is not the most shocking bit about Adam’s journey — not even close — because the whole sweep, chronicled in a new AppleTV+ docudrama, WeCrashed, will prompt at least one major question: Was he running a business, or a cult or a circus?
Spanning eight episodes — each clocking in an hour — WeCrashed (Apple TV+) is long and dense. It packs subplots within subplots, relationships within relationships, deceptions within deceptions. But let me tell you what WeCrashed is not: the story of a ‘tech’ start-up, the story Adam (Jared Leto) sold the world. Because WeWork had nothing to do with tech. It was a good old real estate business. He leased numerous properties across the world, converted them to snazzy communal spaces, expanded at a blinding speed, and floored the investors (while incurring huge losses).
So, what is WeCrashed primarily about? It’s a story of madness, of shared delusions, of impossible inceptions. It’s also a story of crisis-ridden capitalism. Adam founded WeWork two years after the Great Recession and a year before Occupy Wall Street. How do you infuse meaning in your company in such a climate — find devotees at a low pay and limited perks? Well, you learn from Adam: Tell your employees that their work was not… work, that WeWork was not just any other company, that they could change the world. It was capitalism shot through an Instagram filter. Its mission? “To elevate the world’s consciousness”.
WeCrashed begins with Adam’s journey — his initial failures, his dream, his drive — that segues into one more: Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), his girlfriend-turned-wife. Envious of her famous cousin, actor Gwyneth Paltrow, and nursing acting ambitions herself, she is as fascinating a character study, if not more, than Adam. Both are young, hungry, desperate — and they only have each other. She has funky ideas about acting; he has funky ideas about business. It’s a classic Folly of Two (a psychiatric condition where one partner transmits their delusions to the other). Which isn’t a bad thing by itself: Is it true love if it doesn’t have any component of shared delusion?
The first two episodes, following a standard chronological structure, establish the characters and stakes well. Creators Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg sprinkle hints throughout. We see Adam pulling off small cons, cutting corners, relying more on his grandiloquence than talent. We see Rebekah trying, failing, trying. We see their genuine love for each other. We see what she can’t: that Adam will become what she couldn’t, a star.
The slow escalation finds a new edge in the third episode set in a 2012 summer camp. WeWork employees party and get wasted, applauding Adam’s speech like the followers of a cult. And then, the first signs of trouble. Rebekah says on stage, “A big part of being a woman is to help men manifest their calling in life.” The millennial workers outrage at the anti-feminist sentiment, complaining about the long hours, low pay, and a hostile work environment (spawning several sexual harassment complaints).
But in WeWork’s story, all of this is mere breakfast.
Because from the fourth episode onwards, it gets into the dirty financial details. WeWork is bleeding money four years later — from $1.2 million to $1.9 million to $2.1 million per day. This is where the series starts to shine, moving from the Folly of Two to the Folly of Many. Because it’s not just Adam who is manipulative; he manipulates his employees to manipulate others. Before a potential investor’s visit, he ‘trains’ them to behave in the right manner, showing a relaxed work atmosphere. He fires 7% of the workforce, then throws a lavish party.
While watching the series, I thought, more than once, ‘What were the employees thinking? Why not just leave?’ It struck me later that WeCrashed is also a story of toxic bond, where it’s impossible to know when love ends, and abuse begins. But of course, it was not just the employees. What about the investors and journalists? JP Morgan gives him a credit limit of $100 million (he asked for $50 million): he buys a plane and opens 21 new locations. He gets featured on the Time’s 100 list. You can almost feel his admirers’ desperation: that they all wanted a hero of capitalism — a ‘saviour’ — so bad that all nights were days for them.
The makers never hammer this point, but the implications are evident: that we, as a society, have an unhealthy obsession with (and an inordinate leniency for) the rich. Smooth, charming, magnetic but also petty and deceitful and soulless: just look around, you’ll see such stories everywhere. Theranos’ founder, Elizabeth Holmes; Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland; Vijay Mallya — of course — and these are just some of the big names in the last few years. In fact, why go far, there’s a probable scam in the same family. Remember Rebekah’s cousin, Gwyneth? Well, she owns a lifestyle company, Goop, which has been criticised for years for peddling pseudoscience at outrageous prices. She once endorsed bee sting therapy on Goop’s website — the same treatment caused the death of a 55-year-old woman in 2018. (In the same year, the firm was valued at $250 million.)
Since the whole series is a house of cards built on tiered deceits, each episode, in essence, tells the same story. Adam does something nutty, gets rewarded, and becomes more nutty. Such a drama risks being monotonous and predictable, but the writing is so focused, so dynamic, that the show is never not compelling (even for someone like me, who had seen a Netflix documentary on the firm). The makers always find a new way to tease out Adam’s multi-faceted scams, showing a different side of him, telling a different story. They also turn to a vast spread of characters — infusing newer dimensions and tonal variations — giving them satisfying arcs. When the firm is on the verge of imploding, for example, we see how the co-founder, Miguel McKelvey (Kyle Marvin) — a shy unassuming architect — enables Adam’s delusion. No mad house is run by one mad man, and neither was WeWork.
But one of the best things about WeCrashed is how it skewers a certain kind of millennial mentality and hangs it dry. I’ve met a few people like that — mini-Deepak Chopras sinking in the gig economy — who feast on “vibes” and “pockets of peace”, who are so disconnected from reality that their biopics should be called ‘Hawa Hawaai’. Rebekah and Adam not just embodied that culture — they sold it to their employees right till the end. Some of their conversations look straight out of a horror film — a portrait of a couple addicted to each other’s insanity. Rebekah, who says “you can manifest this” a lot, fires people because she doesn’t like their “energy”. When the press starts to publish negative articles on WeWork, she says, “Why do they hate us so much? We just wanted to make the world a better place.” And when, desperate to outsize Adam’s shadow, she flashes a plastic smile and tells him, “I’m the soul of the company”, my goosebumps erupted.
Many scenes were so batshit nuts that I went, “Come on, man” multiple times, then remembered that the docudrama was based on “actual events”, then fact-checked them after I was done (they were all true). But if life elevates the show, then life interrupts it, too. Unlike a fictional feature, WeCrashed can’t change the broad contours of the story. Which is why the series lacks a thumping — a triumphant — final act. Because the Neumanns, much like the Sacklers orchestrating the opioid crisis, got away.
But cinema can document and unmask — helping us remember, not just now but forever — the pettiness, apathy, and cruelty of the powerful. It remains one of the few potent weapons of the ‘little man’. Life would be too drab otherwise: If they got the fortune, we at least deserve the lulz.
Featured image: Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as the Neumanns. Photo: Apple TV+
This review was first published on The Wire.