There is a moment in Inventing Anna when Vivian (Anna Chlumsky), the journalist breaking the titular scammer’s story, questions whether the world understands what she’s doing. Her husband (Anders Holm) asks what she thinks the story is meant to be about. Her answer: “Something about class, social mobility, identity under capitalism…I don’t know.” Unfortunately, Inventing Anna doesn’t seem to know either.
Who is Anna Delvey (Julia Garner)? That’s the question at the core of the Netflix Original limited series, which is based on a true story about a woman who seemingly committed crimes while pretending to be a wealthy German heiress. As if to nail home the point, Inventing Anna opens with a picture of Anna made completely from a grid of Instagram photos of other people. Get it? She’s everyone! She’s no one! It’s so complicated!
Ten hours later, it’s clear that it’s not that complicated. Anyone who was on the internet in 2018 has a pretty good idea of who Anna Delvey is. The series includes several of the juiciest details of Jessica Pressler’s coverage for The Cut, including how facts as simple as Anna’s name, accent, and country of origin are all up for debate. On the page, Anna seems like a badass swindler who has enough guts to charter a private jet she can’t pay for and pursue a multi-million dollar loan with no bona fides. On screen, she’s a grating young woman who spends half of her screen time making weak excuses about wire transfer problems.
The show makes heavy-handed editing choices throughout. It’s clear from its first minutes that this Shonda Rhimes-created series will employ the same corny and distracting transitions — split screens, sliding wipes, sped-up skyline shots — that looked artless when How To Get Away With Murder did them years ago. For some reason, scenes frequently feature background music by talented women rappers (Princess Nokia, Megan Thee Stallion, Saweetie) that seem deeply unrelated to Anna’s underwhelming character. Worse yet, these great songs all fade into the background almost immediately, undermining their power and giving the effect that we’re watching a commercial, not a TV series.
Inventing Anna doesn’t just have an editing problem, but an editorializing problem. Somewhere along the line, it starts to sympathize with Anna despite never portraying her as sympathetic. Vivian, a pregnant journalist whose career hasn’t bounced back since one of her stories turned out to be unfounded, quickly becomes obsessed with Anna. She gets so deep into tracing the drama that she starts making decisions that go against the basic principles of journalism. We’re meant to follow Vivian down the path of Anna fixation, but the show doesn’t lay the proper groundwork for that. Still, it’s great to see Chlumsky take on a lead role. She plays Vivian as a stubborn, curious person whose apparent disinterest in her own imminent motherhood is more engaging than anything else.
The series is packed with intriguing cast members, which makes its bloated, unremarkable 10 episodes even more of a bummer. Arian Moayad, who steals scenes as Stewy in Succession, gets plenty of screen time here as Anna’s overworked defense attorney. Anna Deveare Smith, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney play three of the story’s more endearing characters, seasoned coworkers of Vivian’s who have been relegated to the same neglected corner of the office as she is. The group helps her dig into the Anna story and functions as a cheering chorus whenever there’s a breakthrough. Alexis Floyd also stands out as Neff, the only friend of Anna’s who still seems willing to stand by her when the justice system comes calling.
As Anna, Garner nails a difficult role. Unfortunately, getting Anna just right means she’s insufferable. Inventing Anna searches high and low for reasons to empathize with her. Maybe she had a bad upbringing. Maybe she had to cut corners as a young woman entrepreneur. None of these theories stick, and instead, we’re left with a woman whose go-to power move is calling people fat and ugly in the silliest accent imaginable. She doesn’t seem to be a genius, as the series insists she must be. She just took advantage of a system of wealth that’s deeply tied to etiquette, weaseling her way in by asking more and more of people who didn’t want to ding their own sterling reputations by saying no.
There is, as Vivian brainstorms, “something about class” here, but we might never know what it is. Inventing Anna is part of a new pantheon of true scammer stories — The Tinder Swindler and The Dropout are among the others — that seem desperate to talk about how people get away with obvious grifts. In the end, though, all Inventing Anna can do is talk about it. On screen, the story is neither salacious enough nor studied enough to bring about any concrete conclusions. Instead, it falls into its own obsessive rabbit hole, and we don’t feel inclined to follow.
Related Topics: Netflix