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'WeWork': Compelling job on a company's downfall

Adam Neuman, co-founder of WeWork, is the focus

Adam Neuman, co-founder of WeWork, is the focus of Hulu's documentary about the company. Credit: HULU

THE DOCUMENTARY "WeWork: Or the Making and Unbreaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn"

WHERE Streaming on Hulu

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The documentary "WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn" charts the steep, sudden rise in the valuation of the eponymous shared workspace company over the past decade before a disastrous attempt at an initial public offering in 2019 sent it hurtling back to Earth.

The film focuses primarily on co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann and unpacks the genesis and unwieldy growth of the business at the forefront of the co-working phenomenon, in which workers from different businesses share the same office. It is directed by Jed Rothstein and streaming on Hulu.

MY SAY Amid the work from home revolution of the pandemic, the story of the rise of the shared workspace simultaneously seems like a relic of a distant past and a harbinger of more seismic changes to come.

That's the fundamental newsworthy quality underpinning this documentary, which transforms what might have seemed a dry story ripped from the pages of a business section into the stuff of high drama.

In Rothstein's hands, the WeWork narrative becomes that of innovators in one space whose initial self-confidence transformed into a belief in their transcendence. This is a cautionary tale fraught with the perils of unabashed hubris.

Neumann evidently seized on a resonant current in the zeitgeist with the initial concept in 2010, but he's seen bristling at being labeled a real estate company. Instead, the business aims to "elevate the world's consciousness," he says, which translates into expansions into living spaces (WeLive) and schooling (WeGrow), among other domains, and a culture that in Rothstein's telling skews dangerously toward cultlike faith in unachievable nonsense.

It's the Icarus myth playing out against the backdrop of the socially conscious tech space that emerged in force in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It's the story of self-confidence transformed into a belief in divine transcendence, the dangers that arise when one comes to believe in a messianic gift for changing not just one particular industry, but the very way we live now.

Rothstein illustrates this clearly enough and the film plays well even for someone with no understanding of how an IPO works.

There's a modicum of Wall Street jargon, an abundance of compelling footage that presents a comprehensive picture of the ways in which the filmmaker says Neumann's public and private personas spearheaded this roller coaster ride, and a thoughtful, concise editing of interviews with experts ranging from journalists to an NYU professor.

Even amid this portrait of the Adam Neumann drama, which ended when he stepped down as CEO of WeWork in 2019, Rothstein recognizes the particularly fraught moment we're in. The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the future of the conventional workplace more uncertain than ever.

How WeWork and coworking in general fit into it all remains to be seen. But there's a direct path from the economic turmoil that spurred the creation of the company to this moment, right now, and the filmmaker charts it with aplomb.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a compelling documentary that takes what might have been a dry subject and jolts it to life.

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