Anna Delvey utilized her voice — that impossible-to-place accent, that clipped delivery, and deadpan drawl, and those harsh consonants — to fascinate and deflect while scamming her way across New York City and bilking banks, hotels, and people. Every ambiguous aspect of her past could be explained away by that perplexingly mellifluous voice, from her ethnicity and parents’ social status to her education and professional history. What were the hidden motives, desires, and delusions within its layers?
“Inventing Anna“, Netflix’s dramatization of Jessica Pressler’s 2018 New York Magazine feature about Delvey, tries to unveil the interiority of its eponymous character by using the same tactic she did on so many other people. It’s a pointless diversion with a shrinking payout, and the series’ choice to elevate its protagonist into a symbol of plucky tenacity and aspirational imagination feels like an accidentally on-brand extension of misdirected faith.
“Inventing Anna” is “inspired by Jessica Pressler’s reporting,” according to the show’s closing credits, and was created by Shonda Rhimes as part of her Netflix pact following the tremendous success of Bridgerton. (Pressler’s work also inspired the film Hustlers, another scam story that does a far better job at depicting the societal circumstances that lead to strippers robbing Wall Street guys.) “Inventing Anna”, on the other hand, includes a disclaimer in the opening titles that “this whole tale is completely genuine, except for all the parts that are utterly made up,” which begs two questions: how much of this actually happened, and how do candor and artifice work together?
For a story that is already a pyramid of lies and obfuscations, those questions are a little existential and perhaps a bit meta. But, given how bloated “Inventing Anna” is, and how needless some of these subplots appear, it’s worth wondering what else was thrown in for good measure. Is it the embellishments to the story that makes it feel so at odds with itself, and how literal is the “creating” in “Inventing Anna”? Anna Chlumsky’s journalist worried at one point that she missed the real tale of Anna Delvey and what she represented about a certain kind of American dream, but Inventing Anna seemed to miss the point entirely. Its transformation of its major person into a girl boss advocate and patriarchy victim absolves its subject of accountability for her own acts. The system may be flawed, whether in finance or criminal justice, but that doesn’t mean Delvey is.
“Inventing Anna” focuses on the writing of Pressler’s article, however, she is renamed Vivian Kent and played by Chlumsky in the series, while New York Magazine is renamed Manhattan. In 2017, Vivian is pregnant and trying to reclaim her image after a humiliating journalistic gaffe, which “Inventing Anna” treats like a big mystery. (One of the series’ most irritating narrative tendencies is its backward approach to disseminating vital information and how it talks around important character details, which results in actors delivering outsized, focus-pulling reactions to seemingly innocuous conversations as smidgens of information are revealed.) Vivian sees Anna (Julia Garner) as a terrific tale and an opportunity to establish herself and cement her place in the profession before her child is born. How did this 26-year-old convince Fortress Investment Group to consider a $40 million loan? How did she afford to stay at five-star hotels while barely making ends meet? Was she telling the truth when she said she had a trust fund in Germany? What about her heartbreaking tales of a cruel father who refused to support her dream of creating an exclusive New York social club? Was “Anna Delvey” really her name? “I’m not one of those party girls.” When Vivian visits Anna in Rikers, Anna argues, “I’m trying to develop a business,” and the next eight episodes of “Inventing Anna” chronicle Vivian’s research, her interviews with Anna’s group, the publication of her tale, and Anna’s 2018 trial and the media circus surrounding it.
“Inventing Anna” unveils its ensemble cast by connecting our perspective with Vivian and the numerous personalities around whose episodes concentrate as Vivian searches down people who Anna fooled, befriended, or both (many of whom share names with their real-life counterparts). There are the “normal” people, such as Neff (Alexis Floyd), a film-school grad working as a hotel concierge whom Anna bribes with $100 tips and invites to parties with evil pharma CEO Martin Shkreli; Kacy (Laverne Cox), a celebrity trainer who recites HomeGoods sign slogans about karma and the universe; and Rachel (Katie Lowes), a Vanity Fair employee who accepts all of Anna’s generosity but There are the elite, such as Hamptons resident Talia (Marika Dominczyk), from whom Anna stole a week on a yacht; the mega-wealthy Nora (Kate Burton), on whose credit cards Anna charged nearly a half-million dollars in Bergdorf Goodman fashion; and senior equity partner Alan (Anthony Edwards), who approves Anna’s loan application for tens of millions, despite the fact that she never paid a cent of his retainer. Finally, there are those directly involved in Anna’s media attention and defense, particularly Vivian and Anna’s lawyer, Todd (Arian Moayed), who sees something relevant and identifiable in his client’s story. One of the series’ highlights is Moayed’s smug delivery of “Everyone dislikes banks and everyone thinks hotels overcharge.”
In fact, among “Inventing Anna’s” most consistently noteworthy elements are its performances, which transcend what is sometimes the unnecessarily repetitive language and needlessly convoluted storyline. (“Who is Anna Delvey?” is the show’s favorite transitional line, and it quickly becomes overused.) Moayed’s performance as the overworked underappreciated Todd is remarkable in its wide-eyed earnestness and seething fury for people who only know him from Succession. Edwards is convincing as a financier who views Anna as a daughter; the offended look on his face when he is demoted from his health club’s premier racquetball court to its smallest venue after the story breaks is almost pitiful until you realize that was the only punishment he received for allowing himself to be duped. And Anna Deavere Smith, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney as Vivian’s fellow Manhattan journalists who jump right in to help her with the article are delightfully energetic. They help to mask Chlumsky’s grating acting choices, which repeat themselves — spitting out large jumbles of words in rapid succession, gnawing the inside of her mouth in anxiousness, and then staring and grimacing in one direction or another — and never look organic.
The link between Vivian’s uphill battle against her male editors and Anna’s quest against the bro-y New York elite is made here, but the analogy falls flat since Chlumsky spends so much of the play in cartoonish hysteria. Before the series throws her into a cartoonish panic, Garner fared better. Garner’s voice is said to be a dead ringer for Delvey’s, and her performance is yet another chance for the actress to demonstrate her wide range of emotions. The role is split into two parts, with the prison Anna, who enjoys calling Vivian fat, telling one story, and the fraudster Anna, who air-kisses everyone while promising them nonexistent wire transfers, telling the other. Garner does a good job of connecting the two sides; her confident body language and smug facial expressions convey the character’s self-assurance and sense of superiority. Is Anna Delvey a vile and vain woman? Absolutely. Garner, on the other hand, exudes an impenetrable shell that makes her occasional moments of vulnerability all the more impactful.
On one hand, eat the wealthy. However, Anna Delvey aspired to be wealthy as well, so is she really the Robin Hood figure that “Inventing Anna” portrays her as? The problem is that Anna Delvey’s who is so elusive and contradictory that any attempt to comprehend her seems dangerous, yet “Inventing Anna” spends hours rewinding, fast-forwarding, and ultimately tripping over itself trying to persuade us that truth is malleable and subjective, and in the eye of the beholder, or something.
“Inventing Anna” is a perfect example of the bloat that plagues so many streaming services, with nine episodes dropping simultaneously on Friday, February 11. Every episode spends precious minutes scrolling through social media posts and comments onscreen to emphasize Anna’s popularity and omnipresence in the city’s upper echelons, 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” bombards viewers with an attempt to track all of Anna’s movements and provide the perspectives of all of the characters involved, which includes time-jumping, excessive split screens, and duplicate compositions, as well as a lot of slow-motion and fourth-wall-breaking. Every episode drags as we see one version of Anna’s activities, then listen to characters describe how what she truly did was different from what we just saw her do, and then see another version of her behavior, which theoretically is what happened this time. Is that the case?
After a while, it’s difficult to care, and “Inventing Anna” doesn’t make a convincing case for the viewer’s time. Anna Delvey defrauded her victims. Some people supported her, while others did not. Some people profited from her, while others suffered losses as a result of her. With bigger issues about whether what Delvey did was truly so horrible, Inventing Anna attempts to bring shades of gray into the narrative, but the ambiguity fails to connect due to the series’ overreliance on stylistic tics and failure to pick a consistent tone. Millionaires who have been taken advantage of are derided for their out-of-touch grandiosity at times, yet their riches are revered and fetishized at other times. Anna’s pals occasionally admit that what she’s doing is bad, but they cheer her on when the series determines that they should reconsider.
“Inventing Anna” veers all over the place, with one of its few constants being an irritating insistence that Delvey was a gifted but misunderstood character. If the series’ ultimate goal was to help people rediscover their identities, its characters and plots needed greater depth and complexity to justify their interest. “Bitches, Anna Delvey is a masterpiece!” Inventing Anna is not like Garner’s portrayal of the Soho grifter, who shrieks while being hired.