Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
Elizabeth Holmes has been a source of fascination for many since glimpsing the husky-voiced, wide-eyed persona she affected in Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.” Amanda Seyfried nails all of that in “The Dropout,” a slick Hulu docuseries devoted to Holmes’ rise and Shakespearean fall, as well as the gender dynamics at play throughout.
Boasting an inordinately good cast in even relatively minor roles, the series adopts an unexpectedly sympathetic posture toward Holmes, at least in the early going, as she seized on the idea of improving the blood-testing process before dropping out of Stanford to pursue her vision.
Part of that ambition, it’s surmised, stemmed from watching her father’s struggles thanks to working at Enron, although she clearly derived the wrong anything-to-win lesson from that experience.
Completely driven and a relentless saleswoman, Holmes faces all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny, such as when she’s told not to look too good if she wants potential financiers to take her seriously.
At the same time, some (including in media) were clearly beguiled by the idea of a young female CEO in this male-dominated, tech-driven environment, never mind the fact that the product she’s peddling won’t do what she keeps telling people that it will — a good idea that she couldn’t make work.
As Stanford professor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf) concludes bluntly, “She’s a fraud.” Alas, that assessment didn’t prevent plenty of high-powered individuals, including former Secretary of State George Shultz (Sam Waterston), from being charmed by her pitch, seeing her as “a symbol of feminist progress.”
“The Dropout” is populated by a gaudy assortment of big-name actors, including Metcalf, Waterston, William H. Macy, Stephen Fry, Kurtwood Smith, Bill Irwin, and Anne Archer.
Still, Seyfried steals the show, from the youthful version of Holmes to the one who worked at everything related to her carefully crafted image — from choosing her black turtleneck look to the tenor of her voice, rehearsing the delivery in the mirror.
There’s also something stiff and artificial about her personal interactions, a point she makes overtly to her lover and partner Sunny Balwani (“Lost’s” Naveen Andrews), telling him, “I don’t feel things the way other people feel things,” while insisting she cares about him nonetheless.
Framed by Holmes giving a deposition, the series chronicles how she misrepresented revenues and testing failures, while wooing politicians, dignitaries and investors.
There are also tantalizing subplots in Theranos’ fate, from the young whistleblowers — Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette), Shultz’s grandson, and Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-young Kim) — who came forward to expose Theranos’s misdeeds to the Wall Street Journal reporter (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who helped break the story, even as the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, was among those investing in the company.
“The Dropout” is just the latest look at the cutthroat world of such start-ups, coming close on the heels of “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” which shares some of the same tragic excesses.
Even with a high bar for such fare, thanks largely to Seyfried, “The Dropout” gets under your skin, passing the “Should I watch?” test with flying colors.
“The Dropout” premieres March 3 on Hulu.
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