It only feels like a decade ago that WeWork CEO Adam Neumann was ousted from the company he cofounded, in spectacularly public fashion. In truth, it’s been less than two years. Already, though, Hulu’s documentary about WeWork’s rise and fall feels like a look back at another era.
In part, that’s because the pandemic has made everything that came before it seem impossibly distant. But it’s also because WeWork, as portrayed Jed Rothstein’s WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, stands as a perfect encapsulation of the times it came up in, combining the hustle culture and tech boosterism of the 2000s and early 2010s into a boiling toxic stew.
At its best, WeWork sketches a damning picture of the cultural forces that made the whole WeWork debacle possible in the first place. But too often, it slips into the same trap that so many other people did at the time, putting Neumann himself at the center of the universe.
In fairness, Rothstein clearly sees Neumann (who declined to be interviewed for the movie) for the bullshit artist he is. The film opens with behind-the-scenes footage from a marketing pitch video, in which Neumann flubs his lines over and over and gets more flustered each time. My favorite(?) piece of nonsense comes just a few minutes later, from a different interview in which he’s trying to explain what WeWork’s mission statement is:
“The world has shifted. It used to be an I world. Right? iPhone, iMac, all about me me me. If you take the ‘me’ and you flip it, and you get the ‘we,’ you understand that we’re about to change the way people work and the way people live, but more importantly, change the world.”
As a reporter scoffs of the company’s grandiose mission statements much later in the movie: “For god’s sake, you’re renting fucking desks.”
Neumann’s bloviating comes off as so transparently vapid that it undercuts any sense of the irresistible charisma he’s described as having. Indeed, it’s difficult not to side-eye the business community that fell for his con as hard as they did. Really? I kept wondering. This is the guy you let sucker you for so many years? Yet even as it goes out of its way to deflate his rumored magnetism, it keeps getting sucked back into his orbit.
In talking-head interviews, journalists and ex-employees breathlessly recount anecdotes that are meant to illustrate the man’s ambition or arrogance. Sometimes they work; one tiny but telling tale is that WeWork management had the office’s in-house coffee stand switch the definitions of “latte” and “cappuccino” rather than teach Neumann to get them straight. (Another detail that’s really neither here nor there, but feels extra-juicy: We’re reminded that Neumann’s wife is cousins with Gwyneth Paltrow, because of course Gwyneth Paltrow is somehow involved in this scam.)
Just as often, though, these stories only seem to reveal how taken this movie is by any and all things Neumann. An early employee recites the first work email she ever got for him, not just word for word but punctuation point by punctuation point: “‘Good morning,’ period. ‘Let’s build the largest networking community on the planet,’ and not even a period at the end,” she says firmly, as if that means something. What’s odd isn’t that this employee remembered a fairly innocuous message, or that she shared it during her interview with the filmmakers. It’s that Rothstein thought this tidbit worth including.
Too often, the film slips into the same trap of putting Neumann himself at the center of the universe.
The blinding spotlight on Neumann probably makes WeWork easier to follow, but it keeps too much else out in the shadows. We never do learn, for instance, how WeWork’s other cofounder, Miguel McKelvey, factored into either his company’s meteoric ascent or its fiery crash. Nor do we hear much about other allegations and controversies around WeWork that don’t directly involve Neumann. The doc scratches at deeper insights about capitalism or community, without ever quite breaking through into that richer ground.
We do get a sense that something more interesting is skulking around the edges of Neumann’s tale — particularly in the second half of the documentary, which starts to lean more heavily on interviews with ex-employees scarred by their experience. The most compelling, and most heartbreaking, material belongs to the earnest employees who bought into Neumann’s bullshit wholesale, who let themselves believe WeWork was something far bigger and more meaningful than it was.
There’s Neumann’s former assistant, who was too green to see Neumann’s bloviating PR-speak for what it was, and who went into an emotional tailspin after losing what she saw as not just a job or a career but a life’s purpose. There’s a guy who worked at WeWork and lived at WeLive (essentially dorms for grownups) and stopped having friends outside the company all together, but who now resents that he was used as a prop to promote WeWork’s hip young image. A lawyer, older and less gullible than the rest, laughs when recalling an observation made by a contracted security guard at one of WeWork’s many company-mandated self-promoting bashes: “This is a cult.”
And it does feel a lot like one, at least as far as we can tell. As flimsy as WeWork’s supposed ideals proved to be, as hollow as Neumann’s snake-oil pitch really was, it become tragically apparent that he was shrewd about exploiting a particularly Millennial belief in the hustle and craving for community. His work-hard-play-hard pitch to WeWork staff and customers resonated not because it was new, but because it dovetailed so neatly with broader cultural messaging about endless hard work as the highest ideal of human existence.
His former assistant recalls her therapist reminding her that “that company is not your worth,” and while it’s a valid point, it’s also one that seems like it shouldn’t have needed to be said in the first place. That it did would seem to point to a greater ill that goes far beyond a single toxic founder or a single mismanaged startup.
But it’s a conversation WeWork doesn’t seem ready to have just yet. The conversation it does want to have is a slightly dazed one about how the saga of WeWork is totally nuts — when in reality, so many of the details feel exhaustingly familiar. Case in point: It wasn’t until days after I saw the movie that I realized some of the anecdotes I thought they’d left out were ones I’d heard not about Neumann but about former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, a totally different embattled tech mogul who left the company he cofounded in late 2019.
WeWork ends with a last-ditch grasp for larger meaning, nodding to COVID-era loneliness with shots of interview subjects donning or removing masks. In a voiceover, one ex-employee posits that the entire WeWork debacle was really about human desire for community in a world with too little of it in these uncertain times, or something like that. He barely sounds like he believes his own words, and maybe he shouldn’t. They’re pleasant but empty ones that gesture at profundity without actually delivering it.
They are, in other words, the kind of highfalutin hot air Neumann spouted all the way to that grossly inflated $47 billion valuation. WeWork’s utility as a cautionary tale isn’t really in doubt, given how dramatically it flamed out, and how transparent so much of its failings look in retrospect. It’s just not all that clear WeWork understands what precisely the story of WeWork is supposed to caution against.