There are few true stories that feel as perfectly poised for the screen as Anna Delvey’s. When New York Magazine published its 2018 exposé about a cherub-cheeked, twenty-something redhead who posed as a German heiress and scammed her way to the upper echelons of New York’s high society, it was inevitable that the story would go viral. Following an Instagram trail of deception and designer clothes, reporter Jessica Presler had uncovered a story that read like a crime novel. Or a Netflix script.
Naturally, TV behemoth Shonda Rhimes acquired the rights. Delvey’s story calls for exactly the kind of high-budget, higher-drama treatment at which Rhimes (previously Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) excels. And when Julia Garner – Ozark’s breakout star and one of the most interesting young actors working today – was cast as Delvey, the series seemed destined for success. But the result falls flat. Inventing Anna is a stretched-out nine-episode romp that never quite catches the enigma of its protagonist – or matches her appeal.
Inventing Anna rattles between two timelines. In 2017, journalist Vivian Kent (a stand-in for Presler played by Anna Chlumsky) first learns about Anna, who’s in prison at Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges of fraud and grand larceny – white-collar stuff. She sets out on a mission to tell her story, interviewing Anna’s reluctant peers (or rather marks) as well as the woman herself. The narratives that Vivian collects form the show’s second timeline: a series of flashbacks that unfold chronologically to explain how Anna funded her life with dodgy cheques, rich friends, a rolodex of credit cards, and sheer, enviable chutzpah.
Garner’s performance is a tricky one. Firstly, there’s the accent. It’s a baffling concoction of German, Russian and American that sounds like bad acting. Then there’s her dialogue. It’s a script riddled in mean girl maxims like: “Why do you dress poor?” But watch interviews with the real-life Delvey and it’s clear that Garner’s smirky, aloof portrayal isn’t bad acting. It’s great imitation. In a recent essay for Insider, Delvey wrote about her most recent transgressions (with Immigration and Customs Enforcement this time; she’s facing deportation): “Did I mention I’m the only woman in ICE custody in this whole jail? Tell me I’m special without telling me I’m special.” For that reason, I’m happy to let Garner’s Anna get away with the broad clichés, but the same grace can’t be extended to the rest of the show’s ensemble cast. Between the gallerist, the tech bro, the fashion designer and the real estate mogul, Anna’s surrounding players feel ripped from some game of Sims: New York Glitterati edition.
The show picks up in its second half, mostly thanks to the introduction of journalist number two, Rachel DeLoache Williams (a fantastic Katie Lowes), whose fraught friendship with Anna made for its own viral article in Vanity Fair in 2018, followed by a book titled My Friend Anna in 2019 (to which HBO have purchased the rights). Things between Williams and Anna come to a head on a holiday-from-hell in Morocco when Williams ends up footing the $62,000 bill on her work card. The push-and-pull of their friendship makes for many of the show’s best scenes – but they are too few and far between to make up for a muddled beginning and unsatisfying end.
It feels unfair to criticise Chlumsky in this role. The actor does what she can after being saddled with an uneven script and a clichéd character. Vivian is positioned as a surrogate for the audience, an outsider looking in, appraising Anna with equal parts admiration and disapproval. Again and again, Vivian utters some version of “How the hell did she do this?” and “Who really is Anna Delvey?” as if trying to hammer home how interesting the story is – and by extension this show that you’re watching right now. While every other element of the series feels bloated, Vivian’s existence is skeletal. She serves only as a lens through which to see Anna. And a foggy lens, at that. While there are some attempts to demonstrate how Anna hoodwinked everyone around her, Delvey’s allure remains mostly opaque.
The series desperately wants to say something. In one episode, Anna tells Vivian that men who have committed far worse crimes than her “face no consequences, no fallout, no jail time”. There are references to Donald Trump and Warren Buffet, Martin Shkreli and Billy McFarland. Anna is even seen crashing at the Fyre Festival founder’s house for a while. When Anna is trying to get a finance lawyer to take her business proposal seriously, she reluctantly dyes her hair from blonde to auburn and trades in her usual glitzy mini dresses for a Steve Job turtleneck. But besides the #GirlBoss brand of feminism on display here, Inventing Anna is unsure of what it wants to say beyond that.
When Vivian’s article is eventually published, the response – a deification of Anna as Robin Hood in a babydoll dress – feels icky to her. When she complains that people are missing the real story, her husband (Anders Holm) asks what the real story is. Even Vivian is unsure. “Something about class, social mobility, identity under capitalism… I don’t know,” she mumbles. The same can be said for Inventing Anna as a series. It’s maybe the only honest line of dialogue in the whole thing.
Inventing Anna is available to stream on Netflix