Silicon Valley has always been fascinating. Innovation, larger than life characters, game changers, con artists, monsters and more all permeate the entire industry, which makes it ripe for Hollywood adaptions. They all have a tendency to be pretty similar in tone, with writers and directors attempting to capture the manic rise and fall of some of the best and worst tech innovations in the last 10 years. Some nail it, while others like “Super Pumped” can’t quite hit the mark as much as it tries.
It is most certainly manic, but all the chaos and over the top, fictionalized retelling of the creation of Uber fails to give one thing every single film or show like this needs: someone to root for. “Super Pumped” struggles to really put the beginnings of the ride share giant into proper perspective, delivering solid performances but strangely having very little to say about the controversial company.
“Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” is based on a book of the same name by Mike Issac, and serves as anthology series about the tech industry with this season looking at the early days of Uber. A second season, which will cover Facebook, is already greenlit. The series is created by Brian Koppleman and David Levien, who have served as writers for Showtime’s other big hit “Billions” as well as some notable films like “Runaway Jury” and “Ocean’s 13.” The series starts Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber founder Travis Kalanick and Kyle Chandler as VC bankroll Bill Gurley. “Super Pumped” is a limited, 5 part series that tells the story of the rise and fall of Uber as a game changing tour de force and how it challenged the status quo to change transportation forever.
Lets digress for a moment and take a look at “The Social Network.” I promise, this is still a review of “Super Pumped” and that this detour is relevant. Sorokin’s script here as manic as you’d expect from a fictionalized retelling of Facebook, bouncing from deposition to coding to frat parties all while being powered by Trent Reznor’s out of this world score. Add David Fincher‘s keen eye for even more manic visuals, and you have a whirlwind of story telling that somehow comes together to create movie magic. “The Social Network” succeeds for a few reasons aside from the perfect blend of filmmakers.
For starters, it balances the uniqueness of the idea with the destructive result of the product, giving us a glimpse at how even from the beginning, innovation is paved with shady practices. What it also gives us is a solid narrative entry point with Eduardo Saverin, who acts the eyes of the audience as we try to deal with the incredible talent but also naive and monstrous actions of Zuckerberg. This allows us to have at least some sympathy for Mark even though most of what he does is pretty reprehensible. You get the sense that this is coming from a place of naivety and youth instead of outright malice and narcissism. That’s not to say that Zuckerberg isn’t a megalomaniac bent on virtual world domination, but “The Social Network” manages to frame him as a complex human being that is never one thing all the time.
All of this is in stark contrast to the failures of “Super Pumped,” that wants so bad be some kind of “Wolf of Wall Street/The Social Network” hybrid it does neither well. It even goes as far as to have Quentin Tarantino pop in as a stand in narrator a la “The Big Short” celebrity dumb down, and it is jarring to say that least. Not just because it’s Tarantino, but because it’s so out of left field and tonally imbalanced that you’re never quite sure why it’s happening until it happens. In addition to wanting to be movies it’s not, “Super Pumped” fails to give us anyone to care about or root for. Unlike “The Social Network” which starts us long before the actual work on Facebook even occurs so we are able to see Mark as a young, brilliant, socially awkward college kid with manufactured grudge against women, Levitt’s Kalanick is already full blown tech bro when we meet him.
Even in the early days of it being a broke start up named UberCab battling it out in the streets of San Francisco, we can already see the toxic work environments and scamming nature of the entire company. Everything that lead to its downfall and exposure are all there at the start. And while that should signal “Super Pumped” as being aware of its subject, it actually demonstrates the opposite. We are somehow suppose to be rooting for Travis, who displays everything we dislike about greedy, egotistical tech bro CEOs. He is wholly unlikeable from the jump, and not even the oozing charm and charisma of Levitt can dissuade you from wanting to punch him in his big, dumb face. That’s no fault of Levitt, who is really giving it his all here. He is simply portraying a terrible person who may have reshaped the way we travel, but was always a toxic person with a knack for destruction.
And all of this would be fine if “Super Pumped” gave us someone who wasn’t a part of the culture or Travis’s egomania to watch the events unfold. Hell, you could even have that very person be corrupted by the culture Uber created. But we need SOMETHING, anything, other than trying to pretend Travis is a protagonist and a sympathetic character.
He’s not, “Super Pumped” doesn’t really even try to pretend that he is, but then it also asks us to root for him and the success of Uber. We can’t because we know how the story ends. So if you’re going to fictionalized the story (which I’m sure there’s some liberal history going on here) you might as well fictionalize your star and give him some kind of humanity and sympathy so we can invest a bit more as we watch his absolute power corrupt him absolutely.
The biggest problem with “Super Pumped” is that the main character is corrupt from the get go, with the first episode literally starting with Levitt asking an interviewee, “are you an asshole?” We are immediately given every reason to dislike him, and the constant ask to get behind him feels more taxing than engaging. Even “Wolf of Wall Street” manages to add some kind of layering to Belfort, giving us a brief glimpse into his life before he became a despicable scam artist. We are given none of that here, and at every turn it feels like Levitt is going out of his way to make you hate him. Sure, we’re suppose to if we know anything about him in real life, but that’s a really bad foot to start the show off with and makes it difficult to want to see how it all falls down.
Overall, “Super Pumped” is well shot and well acted, and even Levitt truly elevates the material as best he can. But the show wants to be too many things within the genre its operating in, and rather than focusing one aspect as a strength, it tries to be everything all at once. I don’t know that I can say that “Super Pumped” isn’t good, because there are some things to like. But I can say that it never quite reaches the potential something like this should, desperately trying to be the things that came before it but built its narrative on those inspirations’ weaknesses instead of their strength.
“Super Pumped” doesn’t really live up to the hype of its name and ends up feeling more kinda cool.
Rating: 3 out 5 Stars
“Super Pumped” airs on SHOWTIME on Sundays. The first episode premiered on February 27th, and is available to stream on ShowBox and/or Showtime on Demand. You can watch the trailer below.