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‘WeCrashed’ is a live action cartoon of an Israeli CEO’s fall from grace

In the world of startups, WeWork’s Adam Neumann was a unicorn – the figurehead of a mythic, privately held company worth north of a billion dollars. In the world of Jews he was something just as legendary: 6’5”.

Jared Leto – who plays Neumann in the new AppleTV+ show “WeCrashed,” the latest in a litany of podcast-to-streaming shows about an Icarus-like Millennial with a 10-digit idea – is about 5’11”. The difference in stature is a symptom of the show’s disinterest in verisimilitude and the larger gulf between its warped reality and the zany true story that needs little embellishment. It’s also Neumann’s only feature that goes unheightened.

What we’re watching is a live-action cartoon. When, in a late episode, one of many composite characters tells Adam and his wife, Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), that the couple are “not people,” it rings the rare true note.

To say that “WeCrashed” is the most embarrassing spectacle Hathaway or Leto has ever been a party to is no minor statement.

Hathaway appeared to be stoned while hosting the Oscars. Leto has been accused of mailing used condoms to co-stars. Still, they both have Academy Awards and reputations for commitment that should give the show, about the co-working company’s gargantuan implosion after self-dealing finances and a bizarre IPO pitch, an air of prestige. If neither actor has excelled at subtlety of late (Leto won his cringy Oscar for playing a trans woman, poorly; Hathaway for shaving her head on camera while singing), the couple they’re playing were never known for their nuance.

Leto, who said he bled olive oil and snorted arrabbiata for his role as an Italian magnate in “The House of Gucci,” has made no equivalent claim for his turn as Neumann. He did not receive a hummus transfusion or take shakshuka baths, and it seems he couldn’t even be bothered to sound Israeli, instead presenting, as I will scarcely be the first critic to note, like a botoxed Tommy Wiseau in prosthetics that do nothing to further his resemblance to Neumann. When he shouts “Rivka!” in the first episode, my reptile brain heard “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa.”

This living cartoon, who, as the eponymous Wondery podcast attests, did most of these ridiculous things featured here, becomes more aggressively cartoonish, making any empathy for his exploits and undoing a harder ask as we go along. The rare effort to humanize Rebekah – in a string of clumsy one-off flashbacks – feel desultory. All the while their dialogue suffers from what I’ll call “lunch order characterization.” Adam brays for “extra slivered almonds”; the famously vegan Rebekah demands some obscure coffee while grousing about the smell of meat at the WeWork “summer camp.”

Everything this insipid Lady Macbeth says is some signpost to ridiculous privilege or garbled new-age think. Her relation to Gwyneth Paltrow, a cousin, is a dead horse punchline (don’t worry, there’s a jade egg joke) and her sudden belief in Adam, after reaming him out for being “full of shit,” is entirely uncredible. That’s because Leto’s Neumann – perhaps not unlike Leto, who refused to break character on set – is so manically annoying that jumping out the window of a coworking space seems preferable to attending his Monday morning meetings. His hustling, literally bribing-a-baby-with-a-dollar antics, are pathetic until he improbably shifts to master pitchman by the end of episode one, where, for some reason, he needs to be told by a Jewish investor the numerological significance of the number 18.

The show wants us to know how monstrously selfish and pretentious the Neumanns are, but, in every other scene, it also wants to spin us up in their romance. Of course it doesn’t work. Us-against-the-world might play when you have flawed characters you like – and if the world is more vapid and superficial than they are – but when they’re grotesques screwing everyone else over, it’s off-putting to watch them screw around on an unfinished office floor.

Cartoonish characterization doesn’t stop with the Neumanns, by the way. Their young legion of workers, and clueless elder millennial peers, often seem like the sort of straw man archetypes David Brooks puts into his columns. The 20-somethings’ social justice leanings and objections to a toxic workplace are played for laughs. Is there any pathos for these poor people doomed by the Neumanns’ grand designs? Its most poignant expression is a young woman’s rueful glance at an Hermes bag she can no longer afford. That and an ID card trampled by a crowd at the end of episode three – what symbolism!

It can be confounding to discover what characters creators Lee Eisenberg and Drew Crevello actually respect in the We landscape, which prized partying and hustling in equal measure. One employee, Leslie (Antoinette Crow-Legacy), tells Adam, “When you hired me, you asked me come build tomorrow with you — I’m sorry this is not how you do that.” The delivery, and line, are meant to be earnest; the drama is funniest when it’s not trying to be.

If there weren’t already a podcast and documentary (as well as a book) about the rise and fall of the Neumanns’ fortunes, “WeCrashed” might be an interesting look at an eccentric couple unknown to those not tuned into CNBC. Existing alongside those other tellings, it adds little to the story save a chance for Hathaway and Leto to munch scenery.

Viewed among the current crop of shows of this genre, “WeCrashed” is better than “Super Pumped” and far worse than “The Dropout,” but feels less necessary than either. Why does it fall down?

In the end, the show has the same problems as WeWork’s infamous S-1. In Rebekah and Adam’s hands, that dry, pre-IPO financial document was transformed into a glossy photo album of their love story, packed with warm-fuzzy language about community and the “power of We.” “WeCrashed” is obsessed with the inane vanity of this couple to the detriment of everything else that makes the story compelling. At the same time, it half-believes in the vision without ever showing us why.

There was a reason that people bought the hype of WeWork, and why so many of the characters here also buy into it, but it’s nowhere to be found in “WeCrashed” – or, for that matter, the documentary that preceded it. In aiming to demystify Adam Neumann with an overstated and clownish performance, the real man remains a cipher, his legendary charisma elusive to those on the outside of the boardrooms or beer-tap-lined offices. The tall tale still stands.

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