These days, eccentric, enigmatic tech founders are a dime a dozen. Heck, they have been for a decade now. “The Social Network” set a high bar for probing the callow mindsets driving so many new money decision-makers, and “Silicon Valley” parodied start-ups and their so-called geniuses for six seasons. That film came out in 2010, and that show has been over for two years. Yet our cultural fascination with the concept of an overnight success remains. It may never fade. The American dream is built on believing anyone with the right idea can become rich from it, and fast.
“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” tells one of these stories. Following the path laid out by its subtitle, Hulu’s documentary tracks the meteoric rise of a modest co-working venture as it morphed into the behemoth We Company — housing a half-dozen lifestyle brands like WeLive, WeGrow, and, oddly, Rise by We — through its aptly fiery fall, marking the biggest implosion in the history of start-ups (per The New York Times). Director Jed Rothstein (“The China Hustle”) also spends a more-than-dutiful amount of time focused on Adam Neumann, the co-founder of WeWork and de facto face of the company’s boom and bust.
But the film ultimately suffers from an overfamiliarity in not just construction but content; the “WeWork” documentary paints a broad portrait of what happened without expanding on (or even including) details that made previous exposés so juicy. Also trying is its reliance on Neumann as a magnetic central figure, a choice as misguided as it is inflated. Maybe the tall and talkative ex-CEO had enough in-person charisma to charm all those moneymen 10 years ago, but he’s just another empty T-shirt in 2021. He can’t carry the doc, and its insistence on keeping Neumann front and center glosses over the company’s more intriguing characters, especially its most fervent believers.
That much is made obvious by the film’s opening sequence, which sees Neumann pulling a Jack Donaghy and struggling at length to deliver a rather simple direct-to-camera address. His monotone bumbling goes on for so long you might think it’s a direct parody of yet another prophetic “30 Rock” bit. But it’s not. It’s a real shoot, which Neumann really botched, which eventually played a part in “WeWork’s” downfall. This comic harpooning of an already unlikable public figure isn’t a method to collapse his significance. While it may be hard to take Neumann seriously after seeing him laugh at his own fart, the “WeWork” doc still parades in talking heads to vouch for the man’s magnetism, charm, and enlightening aura, all of which convinced thousands of people that he could reinvent the way society works.
Still, no matter how many people repeat the same descriptors, we never see it for ourselves. Whether Rothstein undermined his own intentions or Neumann’s power is only perceptible when you’re in the same room, “WeWork” spends loads of time listening to the co-founder speak, showing him waltz around various office buildings, and watching him slowly fall apart. (Neumann doesn’t sit down for an interview.) None of it is convincing, and worse still, few of his soundbites convey the ideas so many people wanted to believe in. Time and again, I had to ask myself: “Wait, what are these people excited about? New workspaces?” and the answer is far too often simply, “Adam Neumman.” For all the weight the movie puts on one central figure, it never unearths the key qualities it claims are there or discovers anything unexpected.
As the doc moves from the company’s origins, to its suspicious activities, to its rampant expansion and almost immediate collapse, “WeWork” is filled with these kind of nagging contradictions, even if Neumann’s poorly captured persona is the most glaring. The company’s co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, is all but ignored after his tertiary introduction, even though he’s often seen silently standing onstage next to Neumann or posing in glossy magazine shoots. The infamous company retreats are chronicled, where Neumann threw Coachella-esque getaways that doubled as mandatory work events stocked with obscene amounts of alcohol, but there are no horror stories, telling gossip, or even an implication that requiring co-workers to party like college kids was maybe, sort of, a bad idea.
Courtesy of Hulu
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity comes with Neumann’s WeLive initiative, which was billed as an innovative “co-living” opportunity while, in reality, served as a glorified dormitory. The most faithful members of the We community (aka enthusiastic employees or those otherwise invested in its success) were invited to live together in newly renovated apartments with a number of shared spaces, including common rooms, kitchens, laundry services, and more. Locations were appealing, furnishings were hip, but the real allure was being part of the cool kids’ club, living shoulder-to-shoulder with the city’s elite entrepreneurial minds, which was supposed to boost your professional clout enough to make up for a rather cramped personal life.
Rothstein lets one man narrate the bulk of this venture and, to be fair, the former WeWork and WeLive member builds up his move-in experience like few others likely would, describing an offer cloaked in secrecy that required him to break his lease sans any paperwork or security, before attending an introductory session he compares to Tom Cruise’s masked orgy in “Eyes Wide Shut,” without all the sex. But then he says that most residents are single, living in close proximity, and throwing nightly parties on various floors. Allusions are made… but nothing really happens. It’s all set up and zero payoff, with the doc’s main source recalling how his new living arrangement ended up alienating all of his friends without ever explaining exactly what happened to make them so wary of his new arrangement. Like the co-founder, like the retreats, like so much of the “WeWork” doc, details are scant and any real understanding of what happened is limited to far-too-basic summaries.
Near the doc’s end, as Rothstein tries to wrap things up with a topical message, the WeLive survivor reemerges with an odd sentiment. “When I look back on my time spent in the We community,” he says, “I see all the friends I made [and] all the relationships that I still have” — when roughly 45 minutes earlier, he was telling us about all the friends he ostracized by trusting in the We community. Is he still brainwashed? Is he just trying to make the best of it? Is there something missing from his story that would explain why he can walk away valuing who he’s met while still regretting who he’s lost?
The doc’s final coda suggests Neumann was able to become as successful as he did because his basic idea to bring people together was rooted in our common desire for community (a desire more evident than ever after a year of isolation). That may be true, but it doesn’t gel with the guy we see in the opening scene, who can’t get through a simple pitch without lifting his leg, breaking wind, and claiming “the universe had to release it.” That version of Neumann is just one more tech yuppie full of hot air, and “WeWork” doesn’t work hard enough to convince us why anyone would believe he’s a unicorn, let alone what broke the spell.
“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It will debut Friday, April 2 on Hulu.