tv review

Inventing Anna Is a Long Con With a Dwindling Payoff


When scamming her way through New York City and bilking banks, hotels, and people, Anna Delvey used her voice — that impossible-to-place accent, that clipped delivery and deadpan drawl, and those sharp consonants — to enthrall and deflect. Every questionable element of her backstory, from her nationality and her parents’ social status to her education and professional background, could be explained away via that confusingly mellifluous voice. What motives, desires, and delusions were hidden within its layers?

Inventing Anna, Netflix’s adaptation of Jessica Pressler’s 2018 New York Magazine story about Delvey, attempts to reveal its titular figure’s interiority by pulling on its viewers the very same trick she used on so many. It’s a distraction with a dwindling payoff, and the series’s decision to valorize its main character into a figure of plucky resilience and aspirational fantasy feels like an unintentionally on-brand extension of misplaced trust.

Created by Shonda Rhimes as part of her Netflix deal and following the massive success of Bridgerton, Inventing Anna is “inspired by the reporting of Jessica Pressler,” according to the show’s end credits. (Pressler’s writing also inspired the film Hustlers, another scam-focused narrative that does a far better job considering the social factors that led to strippers ripping off Wall Street guys.) And yet Inventing Anna also hides behind a caveat in the opening credits that “this whole story is completely true, except for all the parts that are totally made up,” which raises two prevailing questions: How much of this happened, and how do candor and artifice serve each other?

Those queries are slightly existential, and maybe a little meta for a story that is already a pyramid of lies and obfuscations. But given how padded Inventing Anna feels, and how unnecessary some of these subplots seem, it’s worth asking what further exaggeration was added. How literal is the “inventing” in Inventing Anna, and are those additions what make the story feel so at odds with itself? At one point Anna Chlumsky’s journalist worries that she missed the real story of Anna Delvey and what she represented about a certain kind of American dream, but Inventing Anna seems to miss the point of that point. Its elevation of its central figure into some kind of girlboss champion and victim of the patriarchy denies its subject the responsibility of her own actions. The system — be it finance or criminal justice — may be wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily make Delvey right.

Inventing Anna primarily follows the writing of Pressler’s article, although in the series she is renamed Vivian Kent and is played by Chlumsky, while New York Magazine becomes Manhattan. In 2017 the pregnant Vivian is clawing back her reputation after an embarrassing journalistic misstep, which Inventing Anna treats like a great mystery. (One of the series’s most irritating narrative tendencies is its backward approach to disseminating integral information and how it talks around important character details, resulting in actors delivering outsize, focus-pulling reactions to seemingly innocuous conversations as smidgens of information are revealed.) Vivian sees in Anna (Julia Garner) a great story and a chance to prove herself and secure her industry relevance before her child is born. How did this 26-year-old con the private-equity firm Fortress into considering a $40 million loan? How did she stay in a series of five-star hotels while barely paying her bills? Was her insistence that she had a trust fund back in Germany true? How about her pitiful stories about a cruel father who didn’t support her dream of opening an exclusive social club in New York? Was “Anna Delvey” even her actual name? “I’m not some party girl. I’m trying to build a business,” Anna insists when Vivian visits her at Rikers, and Inventing Anna spends the next eight episodes following Vivian’s research, her interviews with those in Anna’s circle, the publication of her story, and Anna’s 2018 trial and the media hoopla surrounding it.

As Vivian tracks down people who Anna conned, befriended, or both, Inventing Anna reveals its ensemble cast by aligning our perspective with Vivian and the individual characters around whom episodes revolve (many of whom share names with their real-life counterparts). There are the “normal” people, like Neff (Alexis Floyd), the film-school grad working as a hotel concierge whose loyalty Anna secures with $100 tips and invites to parties with evil pharma CEO Martin Shkreli; Kacy (Laverne Cox), the celebrity trainer who recites HomeGoods sign slogans about karma and the universe; and Rachel (Katie Lowes), the Vanity Fair employee who willingly accepts all of Anna’s generosities but then balks at the $60,000 bill she’s saddled with when they visit a Moroccan resort where the Kardashians stayed. There are the elite, including Hamptons resident Talia (Marika Dominczyk), from whom Anna stole a week of yacht time; the mega-wealthy Nora (Kate Burton), on whose credit cards Anna charged nearly a half-million dollars’ worth of fashion from Bergdorf Goodman; and senior equity partner Alan (Anthony Edwards), who approves Anna’s loan application for tens of millions, although she never paid one cent of his retainer. And finally there are those directly involved in Anna’s media attention and defense, primarily Vivian and Anna’s lawyer, Todd (Arian Moayed), who sees in his client’s story a sort of scrappiness that will be relatable and recognizable. Moayed’s smirking delivery of, “Everyone hates banks and everyone thinks hotels overcharge,” is one of the series highlights.

In fact, the most consistently commendable components of Inventing Anna are some of its performances, which elevate what is often overly repetitious dialogue and needlessly convoluted plotting. (“Who is Anna Delvey?” is the series’s favorite transitional line, and it gets overused quickly.) For those who only know Moayed from Succession, his turn here as the overworked, underappreciated Todd is fascinating in its wide-eyed sincerity and simmering frustration. Edwards does well as a financier who comes to see Anna as a daughter; the offended look on his face when he’s moved from his health club’s premier racquetball court to its smallest venue after the story breaks is almost pitiable, until you remember that was the only punishment he really received for letting himself get duped. And Anna Deavere Smith, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney are welcomely animated as Vivian’s fellow Manhattan journalists who dive into helping her with the story. They help diffuse Chlumsky’s pervasively frustrating acting choices, which follow a tiring pattern — spitting out great jumbles of words in rapid succession, chewing the inside of her mouth in anxiety, and then glaring and grimacing one way or another — and barely ever seem naturalistic.

There is an observation attempted here about how Vivian’s uphill battle against her male editors is similar to Anna’s quest against the bro-y New York elite, but the comparison doesn’t quite work when Chlumsky spends so much of the show in a cartoonish hysteria. Garner mostly fares better, before the series also sends her into a cartoonish hysteria. Garner’s voice is supposedly a pitch-perfect imitation of Delvey’s actual one, and her performance is another opportunity for the actress to show the cacophonous range of emotions she’s capable of summoning forth. The role is essentially split into two, with the prison Anna who relishes calling Vivian fat spinning one story, and the scammer Anna who air-kisses everyone while promising them nonexistent wire transfers spinning another. Garner connects those halves well enough; the consistency of her self-assured body language and smug facial expressions communicate the character’s self-certainty and sense of superiority. Is Anna Delvey detestable and vain? Absolutely. But Garner projects a kind of impenetrable armor that makes her brief moments of vulnerability at least somewhat affecting.

On the one hand, eat the rich. On the other hand, Anna Delvey wanted to be rich too, so is she really the Robin Hood figure Inventing Anna presents her as? The problem is that the who of Anna Delvey is so slippery and inconsistent that any attempt to understand her seems fraught, and yet Inventing Anna spends hours rewinding, fast-forwarding, and ultimately tripping over itself trying to convince us that the truth is malleable and subjective and in the eye of the beholder, or something.

At nine episodes — which all drop simultaneously on Friday, February 11 — Inventing Anna is reflective of the kind of bloat that plagues so many streaming offerings. The series never met a superficially empowering anthem it couldn’t use in a montage, and every installment spends precious minutes scrolling through social media posts and comments onscreen to emphasize Anna’s popularity and omnipresence in the city’s upper echelons. At the same time, Inventing Anna also bombards viewers with an attempt to track all of Anna’s movements and provide the perspective of every character involved, which means timeline-jumping, excessive split screens and duplicate compositions, and lots of slow motion and fourth-wall breaking. The series displays no confidence in its viewers to pay attention and put together for themselves what Anna was doing, so every episode drags as we see one version of her actions, then listen to characters explain how what she actually did was different from what we just saw her doing, and then we see another version of her behavior, which theoretically this time is what really happened. Or is it?

After a certain point, it’s hard to care, and Inventing Anna doesn’t make a compelling case for the time it requests of viewers. Anna Delvey ripped people off. Some people stood by her and others didn’t. Some people made money off her and others lost money because of her. Inventing Anna attempts to inject shades of gray into the narrative with broader questions about whether what Delvey did was really that bad, but that ambiguity fails to connect given the series’s overreliance on stylistic tics and its inability to choose a consistent tone. Sometimes the taken-advantage-of millionaires are mocked for their own out-of-touch grandiosity, but at other times their wealth is treated with reverence and fetishization. Sometimes Anna’s friends acknowledge that what she’s doing is wrong, but then they cheer her on when the series decides that they should change their minds.

Inventing Anna careens all over the place, and one of its only consistencies is an exhausting insistence that Delvey was talented but misunderstood. If that reclaiming of identity was the series’s ultimate goal, then its characterizations and machinations needed more insight and more layers to justify such fascination. “Anna Delvey is a masterpiece, bitches!” Garner’s version of the Soho grifter shrieks while being booked, but Inventing Anna is not.

Inventing Anna Is a Long Con With a Dwindling Payoff