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Shonda Rhimes' Inventing Anna ruins a good story and robs viewers of their time

  • "Wanting to love the Inventing Anna story is entirely separate from the reality of what Rhimes has done with it, which is to take an elegantly simple study about a decadent and envelop it in narrative maximalism," says Melanie McFarland of Rhimes' Netflix limited series based on scammer Anna Delvey. "From the rococo dialogue that is Rhimes' signature, in which simple communications take on gratuitous curlicues and repetition, to the penchant to drawing out scenes far beyond dramatic necessity, the showrunner mercilessly clobbers us with its overwrought approach." McFarland says "Rhimes' most bewildering choice decentralizes the glamorous predator at its center to make the writer the star. This wouldn't be a problem if she'd written Pressler's stand-in Vivian Kent (Veep star Anna Chlumsky) as more compelling than the sum of her obstacles...Rhimes never sufficiently explores the common psychological elements that the journalist and her subject share in a way that could add meaning on the story. It's the opposite: her thin rendering of each relationship to the other feeds the show's other significant flaws." McFarland adds: "As each hour-plus episode lurches toward the next without much sign of a payoff, you may start questioning whether you have, in fact, been drawn into another long con. Worse, it's one for which there is no restitution."


    • Inventing Anna misunderstands what made the grifter at its center a viral sensation: "For all the promise in its ripped-from-the-headlines premise, Inventing Anna is a shabby letdown," says Shirley Li, adding that "Garner’s Anna is rendered largely inert. With her actions told in retrospect, through the accounts of Vivian’s sources, she is reduced from a character to a collection of anecdotes. On the page, these eyebrow-raising stories—Anna threw dinners attended by Macaulay Culkin and Martin Shkreli! She got a rich friend to spend thousands on her for a trip to the Venice Biennale!—made for a punchy magazine piece. On-screen, drawn out over the course of nine hour-long episodes, her crimes come off as tiresome. And though Garner is a capable actor who nails the real-life Anna’s Muppet-with-a-mouth-full-of-marbles accent, her performance can’t stop Anna’s exploits from seeming boring. Scamming the wealthy means, in Inventing Anna, a whole lot of exchanging business cards and schmoozing for selfies. Such scenes do not make for thrilling material. Then again, maybe the real Anna Delvey’s misdeeds weren’t as ready-made for televised adaptation as perhaps Rhimes and her team thought."
    • Inventing Anna has a tantalizing premise that ends up being a bait-and-switch: "If hype is any measure, it’s rare for a story and its storyteller to be as well-matched as Inventing Anna’s. The limited series isn’t just the first show created by Shonda Rhimes under the producer’s blockbuster Netflix deal," says Alison Herman. "(The smash hit Bridgerton was a Shondaland production, but it was created by Chris Van Dusen.) It’s also adapting one of the juiciest magazine stories of the last decade—the saga of how a penniless Russian woman named Anna Sorokin turned herself into the ersatz heiress Anna Delvey. Rounding out the trifecta of buzz is Julia Garner, the breakout star of Ozark now playing another brazen grifter. As the title character in The Assistant, Garner occupied the bottom rung of Manhattan’s rigid social hierarchy. There’s something undeniably enticing about watching her latest character claw her way to the top, even if she ultimately crashes down. Yet Inventing Anna is something of a bait-and-switch. Anna Delvey may be the title character, but she isn’t the protagonist. A con woman who nearly bluffed her way into starting a kind of Soho House for the even-more-elite, Delvey is something of an enigma—certainly a challenge to make the emotional center of a nine-episode TV show. Instead of trying, Inventing Anna pivots the spotlight to Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), the journalist who latches onto Anna’s story and races to report it before she gives birth."
    • Inventing Anna is unable to do justice to such a grand slam of a true story because of poor writing: "While it may tell Anna’s story, it does so in the most basic, bare-bones manner, devoid of any real personality, fire, or even genuinely compelling characters – thanks mostly in part to the show’s (sometimes painfully) lackluster scripts," says Lauren Coates. "The writing in Inventing Anna feels (ironically) pedestrian – the type of fare one might expect from a middling network workplace comedy and not a glossy Netflix series with a big-name executive producer and an Emmy award-winning lead. Yet, the plot moves sluggishly (struggling to fill the hour-long episodes, in which you can feel every minute tick by) and halts to a near grinding stop after Vivian’s article is published at the beginning of episode seven – leaving for a strange ‘what now?’ limbo until the series makes up its mind as to how it was to draft its last act. The dialogue doesn’t help things either – in a series hinged on Delvey’s ability to near–flawless ingratiate herself into New York high society, the dialogue feels like an older writer’s assumption of how millennials talk – struggling to grasp the cadence or even proper namedrops that shows like Gossip Girl so effortlessly nail in their depictions of the New York elite."
    • If there was ever a nine-episode series that cried out to be a two-hour movie, Inventing Anna is it: "The series suffers from the classic problem of not having anyone to root for," says Bill Goodykoontz. "Delvey, played by Julia Garner, so great in Ozark and a two-time Emmy winner, comes off as selfish, self-centered and delusional. Or she’s a misunderstood put-upon genius whom no one will take seriously because she’s a young woman. The story doesn’t really work as the latter; the facts suggest that Delvey conned too many people and too many financial institutions for that. That she was convicted in 2019 of theft of services, attempted grand larceny and grand larceny doesn’t really help her case."
    • Inventing Anna's storytelling feels flabby with episodes surpassing an hour: "The same goes for a structure that shifts the focus to a different one of Anna's marks in each chapter, jumping back and forth in time before reaching the trial and eventually deciding her fate," says Brian Lowry. He adds of Garner's accent: "Even if Garner's character, Anna Delvey, actually sounded this way, listening to it for nine episodes borders on becoming a distraction at best, and an ear-bending ordeal at worst."
    • Inventing Anna becomes a more frustrating knot of contradictions the more you try to untangle it: "In retelling Delvey’s salacious and undeniably delicious tale of besting Manhattan power players, the limited series is at its best when zipping through snappy Scandal-esque banter, but is also weighed down by oppressively long episodes," says Caroline Framke. "(The shortest clocks in at 58 minutes, while the finale runs almost a full hour and a half long. Why the show didn’t just turn its nine rambling episodes into 10 more succinct ones, I cannot tell you.) With the help of an apparently generous Netflix budget, it spares no expense in its portrayal of jaw-dropping wealth, but still retains the flat cinematography of a broadcast network drama cutting corners. Weirdest and most damning of all, the entire series hinges on Anna’s relationship to the journalist who puts her on the map, a specific and limiting narrative framework that only ends up working against it."
    • Inventing Anna feels like a con on viewers: "The fraud of boldface names, hyped-up marketing and cultural bandwagonning to convince us that it’s saying something worthy of our time and attention, when it never really feels like it’s about anything at all," says Inkoo Kang, adding: "Each episode runs an hour or more — and boy, do you feel it — but there are too many characters, too many story lines and too many ineffectual stabs at meaning for any of them to really land."
    • At its most compelling, Inventing Anna melds intimate personal arcs with bigger-picture studies of the ecosystems they unfold in: "If Inventing Anna stops short of the biting satire of The Bling Ring or the pointed indignation of Hustlers (the latter another scam artist saga based on reporting by Pressler), it’s effective at laying out how, past a certain level of wealth and power, everything is kind of a scam," says Angie Han. "For people as rich as Anna pretended to be, who you know or what you can promise matters far more than what the rules are supposed to be. Anna may be singular in her success, but she’s a grifter among grifters; over the course of the series, she rubs elbows with other notable fraudsters like Martin Shkreli and Billy McFarland, and Donald Trump speeches play on screens in the background."
    • It’s fun to see a real-life story passed through the Shondaland lens: "Unlike Bridgerton, Inventing Anna goes full Shonda," says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. "Anna’s antics deliver plot twists and mysteries worthy of How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Inventing Anna also capitalizes on Rhimes’ gift for mixing business and personal relationships, building little teams of friends and colleagues who care about each other and show it through their work. Vivian’s rapport with three older writers at work — who have cubicles near her in what’s dubbed 'scriberia,' because they’ve all been put out to pasture — is particularly touching. Much of the dialogue is classically quotable Rhimes."
    • Inventing Anna's confounding structure can make staying engaged a chore: "While the frenetic pacing is so focused on movement, it never stops to ask if it’s talking down to the audience," says Ben Travers. "Vivian’s personal arc only really pops when she catches aspects of Anna in herself (and don’t get me started on professional quibbles, though I expect Manhattan New York magazine’s sister site, Vulture, to list all the ways Vivian’s job doesn’t reflect reality). Odds are Inventing Anna won’t have the lasting impact of the article that inspired it — like too many streaming series, it trades in efficiency and force for length and reduced churn. Still, there’s a lot to chew on, including a handful of delicacies yet to be so earnestly unearthed in all those other stories of the rich and famous."
    • Inventing Anna is an entertaining if overlong look into the mind of a chic, haughty sociopath: "The accent is unsettling, and mysterious, and fascinating, just like the woman employing it," says Matthew Gilbert. "I’m not sure the show — which is fictionalized — quite gets at what led Anna to commit her crimes, psychologically or otherwise. From a working-class background, she may have been bitterly rejecting her parents’ lot, or pining for the American Dream — but, while Inventing Anna toys with these and other possibilities, it doesn’t traffic in pat answers. It’s as slippery, in some ways, as its antihero."
    • It is Garner’s Delvey, and not the earnest, serious Vivian, who makes Inventing Anna worth investing anything in: "The Emmy-winning actress has a very different kind of face from the real Delvey, who was once described as looking 'like a Sound of Music fraulein,'" says Philippa Snow. "If from some angles Garner has the same soft, babyish features, she can also rearrange them into something sharper, almost wolfish, if the scene calls for her to look devious or calmly ruthless. Her strange accent, carefully wavering and cartoonishly haughty, calls to mind the one James Franco used to play the equally unplaceable Tommy Wiseau in 2017’s The Disaster Artist, in the sense that any viewer not familiar with the source material might struggle to believe that it was accurate."
    • Inventing Anna is a brilliantly told modern soap opera: "Inventing Anna comes from the Shonda Rhimes stable and stays within the Shondaland (her production company) comfort zone – a multilayered tale brilliantly told, at pace and with glee," says Lucy Mangan. "It may have more heft than it initially appears, but it is played essentially as a modern soap opera – and God, is it fun. This is a show for those mainly looking to marvel – at the effrontery, the style, the steel nerves of the twentysomething weaving webs from inside a house of cards built on thin ice. Those who are looking for an in-depth, analytical take on the Delvey phenomenon, her pathology or motivations – which the handful of previous documentaries about her have lacked – will have to wait a little longer."
    • Inventing Anna is too stuffed with stories to be any fun: "Early episodes are front-loaded with characters who later disappear, like Nora and her stylish companion, Val (James Cusati-Moyer). A surprising amount of screen time is devoted to Rachel, Neff, and celebrity trainer Kacy Duke (Laverne Cox), and the strain Anna's crimes place on their tenuous friendship," says Kristen Baldwin. "The penultimate episode spends more than an hour imagining what Anna might have been like as a young girl, what may have caused her family to move from Russia to Germany, whether the circumstances of her upbringing could hold the key to her later behavior. And for the love of God, I cannot understand why Rhimes would hire magnificent actors like Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Anna Deveare Smith and then give them nothing to do but lob expository dialogue at each other over cubicle walls."
    • Inventing Anna is a brisk, glamorous crime story that bears several of Rhimes’ hallmarks, along with several Scandal alums in the cast: "It’s maybe too glamorous at times and does suffer a bit from streaming bloat, but it’s an engaging watch, powered by a ferociously weird, utterly fascinating lead performance from Julia Garner," says Dave Nemetz, adding: "It’s a great story, and in Garner’s hands, Anna is an instantly great TV character: a charismatic villain and a shape-shifting chameleon, adapting to whatever room she’s in. She’s blunt, bordering on rude (she asks Vivian, 'Are you pregnant, or are you just so very, very fat?'), and endlessly obsessed with status."
    • Inventing Anna demands patience that doesn’t pay off: "Garner captures Anna’s dizzying journey in a smirk-heavy, toned-down manner that unravels satisfyingly by the end," says Saloni Gajjar. "Chlumsky’s performance here is an odd mix of frustrating and captivating. Unfortunately, the talented actor isn’t aided by the writing at all. The uneven script is the series’ biggest grievance, especially considering it’s based on an eloquent article. Vivian repeatedly utters some version of 'How the hell did she do this?', spending every waking minute spewing facts about Anna to anyone who will listen. This quickly gets tedious, and confines Chlumsky to a limited, shoddy narrative. Despite its more evocative performances, Inventing Anna demands patience that doesn’t pay off, squandering its promising potential along the way."
    • Inventing Anna can't make fiction stranger than the truth: "Inventing Anna features a lot of what Rhimes fans enjoy about her work," says Noel Murray. "The characters are rendered broadly but not cartoonishly. The villains have layers; the heroes have weaknesses. The surfaces shine, the dialogue is snappy, and the cast has pep...Plus the plot is grabby, relying heavily on teasing out mysteries. As Vivian digs into exactly what Anna did — and how she almost got away with it — Rhimes and her writers keep dropping hints that this story may be bigger than our intrepid reporter realizes, due to the many New York elites who’ll be humiliated by it. The series rather provocatively suggests that Anna could be seen as a kind of folk hero, using the mega-wealthy’s own snobbery against them. But there are flaws here that are hard to ignore. The biggest is Inventing Anna’s ridiculous length. Most of its nine episodes run over an hour, with one hovering around 80 minutes. Frankly, there’s not enough in the source material to justify this."
    • Inventing Anna is as shallow as its subject: "Delvey’s story is riveting. The series, sadly, is not," says Lorraine Ali. "It’s five hours too long and far too formulaic to keep up with its brazen protagonist, played here by Ozark’s Julia Garner. But for all its problems, it’s hard to stop watching Inventing Anna as it chronicles Delvey’s brilliant grift, from credit card scams to multimillion-dollar banking swindles, Paris Fashion Week to Rikers Island." She adds: "If you enjoy a hate-watch, Inventing Anna at least has that going for it."
    • Inventing Anna's disclaimer that "this whole story is completely true, except for all the parts that are totally made up" raises two questions: "How much of this happened, and how do candor and artifice serve each other?" asks Roxana Hadadi. "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."
    • How Inventing Anna re-created New York Magazine's offices
    • Julia Garner knew she could play Anna, but says "I didn’t know that Hollywood would be able to see that": “It was very clear to me that Anna’s a very private person," says Garner. "She keeps her cards extremely close to the vest,” says Garner. “I was not going to have any expectation that she was going to answer any of the questions that I asked, so I just wanted to get her spirit and energy and incorporate it into the show.”
    • How Garner and her vocal coach created Anna's distinctive accent: Garner and vocal coach Barbara Rubin were given access to publicly unavailable recordings of the real Anna speaking in prison, as well as New York magazine writer Jessica Pressler’s video and audio interviews. They also used Delvey's Instagram presence to see how she communicated with friends. “We started talking about what are the things that pop? What are the things that stand out to you?” says Rubin. “Julia trusts her instincts implicitly. She was like, ‘When I do this particular sound’ or ‘this inflection feels like her to me, I can hang on to that.'”
    • Garner calls Inventing Anna "probably the hardest job I’ve ever done" because of Anna Delvey's accent: “It’s German, but then she grew up in Russia, so you hear a little bit of the Russian inflection alongside the German. But then the musicality of it is more American,” says Garner, who had three weeks to prepare. “A lot of times, people coming from Europe to live in America, their accents starts to shift. And Anna especially does that anyway, she kind of embodies whoever she’s hanging out with. She’s struggling a lot with her own identity, so you see her pick up on traits from whoever she’s hanging out with.” Garner adds: "It was a lot of pressure, and I had to kind of break it down into stages. First, I had to get a German accent down, before I could start adding other accents. And if you notice, a German accent sounds very choppy, almost like every word has a period at the end of it. Then it was introducing the Russian, with some of the rolling 'R' sounds. I’ve done many accents before, and I knew at the outset this was the hardest accent I’m ever going to do in my career. By far. Because her accent is so consistently inconsistent."
    • Shonda Rhimes recalls getting hooked on the Anna Delvey story: "I think I was on a treadmill somewhere when I read the article," she says. "What I remember most is that Jessica Pressler’s writing painted such an amazing picture of that crazy period of time in New York. That “summer of scam” moment, with Fyre Festival and Theranos and all that stuff. I could just visualize it all and she had such vivid characterizations of these people, it made me want to dive in. There was something about Anna and her ambition gone wrong, if you will, or not gone wrong — however you want to look at it — and I was really into that. I thought there was something really intriguing about her and the women that surrounded her." How did Pressler, or somebody like her, become a substantial presence in Inventing Anna? "Well, it was interesting, I sat down and I had long conversations with Jessica about how she reported the story, how she met Anna, all of these things," says Rhimes. "She really opened her herself up and gave us all this stuff. And Anna is a very unknowable person. She’s invented herself in a way that was just so interesting. We needed a reliable narrator, and Anna was definitely not going to be our reliable narrator. And almost nobody else was either, because everybody else had been taken in, fully taken in, by Anna."

    TOPICS: Inventing Anna, Netflix, Anna Chlumsky, Julia Garner, Shonda Rhimes