‘Inventing Anna’ Review: A Rorschach Test for How You Feel About the American Dream

Shonda Rhimes’ limited Netflix series will leave you wondering if famous fake German heiress Anna Delvey is a shrewd grifter or some kind of class-vaulting, feminist hero — or both

“This whole story, the one you’re about to sit on your fat ass and watch like a big lump of nothing, is about me,” Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) announces in a haughty, vocal-fried shrill in the first episode of Inventing Anna (Netflix, Feb. 11). It’s the perfect salvo from the titular figure and ultimate unreliable narrator, who was either a visionary German heiress who had every intention of building the next Soho House in Manhattan, or a flaky grifter who was on the take from the city’s most affluent.

While it might seem counterintuitive to neg your viewers with an insult right off the bat — a tactic used by cut-rate pickup artists to lower a target’s self-esteem so they’re suddenly seeking your approval — it appeared to work in real life. Anna was lavish in spending on herself and others, but not particularly nice. She bragged a lot — about her brilliance, head for business, eidetic memory and excellent taste. She offered withering takes on bad fashion directly to the unfortunate souls wearing it. Her arrogant jabs at out-of-touch high society types who weren’t used to being snubbed by anyone, much less anyone beneath them, worked like an exotic charm.

Played by Garner with a remarkable mastery of her shifty accent and skittishness, we see that they all found the twentysomething with a sharp tongue and a habit of tipping Benjies a fascinating, lively character anyway. One whose bold vision appealed to regular folks’ aspirations to make it big in NYC, and wealthy folks’ insecurities about their inevitable irrelevance. Inventing Anna is a case study in how to hustle up — one we’re reminded is all true. Except for the parts that are made up.

We first meet Anna Delvey, whose real name turns out to be Sorokin, through reporter Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), a Manhattan Magazine journalist and stand-in for Jessica Pressler, whose detailed investigation for New York magazine in 2018 went viral. Kent sees a NY Post article about a wannabe socialite who skipped out on hotel bills, was busted in L.A., and extradited back to New York for a hearing. She smells a big story — and she needs a big story. She’s been recently smeared as a bad journalist for a fact-checking debacle and is determined to redeem herself. She’s also pregnant, giving the piece a deadline she can’t ignore. Kent visits Anna at Rikers where she’s awaiting trial and meets a cagey 26-year-old with outrageous confidence and sixth sense for exploiting weakness. “Are you pregnant or just so very, very fat?” Anna asks Kent in one of their first meetings.

Chlumsky plays Kent with believable reporter-like determination and comes to identify with her subject to the point of obsession. Kent is initially fascinated in not the why, but mainly the how of Anna’s scam, and through her, so are we. How could a nobody in her early twenties arrive in New York and rise so quickly through the ranks, breezing into VIP access to luxury boutiques, restaurants, clubs and fashion events, but also the homes and gatherings of wealthy socialites, philanthropists, gallerists, and through the doors of the city’s most conservative lending institutions?

The answer is one con at a time.

Each episode dives into one character from Anna’s orbit, nimbly juggling present-day and flashbacks to track how, exactly, Anna catapulted from one high roller to the next — by swiftly catering to each person’s connections and tastes. A low-level fashion stylist introduces her to socialite Nora Radford (Kate Burton). Nora mentors Anna’s tech boyfriend Chase (Saamer Usmani), until Anna worms her way into becoming the cherished protege herself. That opens doors, and those doors open more, creating the crucial buzz that this Anna Delvey is a major player. In a standout turn, hotel concierge Neff (Alexis Floyd) tends to Anna during her longest hotel stay at the 12 George (the 11 Howard, in reality), unlocking a bevy of exclusive invites. High-powered lawyer Alan Reed (Anthony Edwards) paves the way to lenders.

Along the way she does make a few friends. Neff becomes protective of Anna, whose success she admires, while former Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel DeLoache Williams (Katie Lowes) comes along for a free ride, only to find herself stuck with a $60,000 bill. Celebrity personal trainer Kacy Duke (Laverne Cox) offers some critical lessons in boundaries.

It’s a compulsively watchable unraveling of how they’re all undone to one degree or another by Anna’s act. But for a while, they believe. Why? For one, because they wanted to, and second, acting like you already belong is the linchpin move in the con handbook, and Anna was a master class. For anyone here for that (everyone?), these are the money shots of show. Collecting affluent tells like a magpie building an elaborate house of cards, Anna ping-pongs through upper-crusters lavish parties, and skipped bills, gathering intel until she perfects a pitch that will close the deal. Suddenly, she’s dressed impeccably outside 281 Park Avenue, a building owned by Manhattan’s most powerful real estate mogul Aby Rosen, with loan approvals totaling $40 million from elite bankers seemingly a final signature away.

If Inventing Anna were only about how a young woman infiltrated Manhattan’s upper echelon by posing as a German heiress, we’d watch. But Rhimes gives us more than the glamour of private racks at Bergdorf’s, fancy dinners at Le Coucou, and luxury stays in Morocco. She also hands us the American Dream on a Birkin-skin platter and demands that we look closer: Sure, maybe Anna is guilty of some theft from banks and hotels (shrug), but is she wrong for wanting the good life, the world in the magazines? Don’t we all? And furthermore, aren’t we all living some kind of lie with every Instagram post and credit card swipe? It’s an indictment of the myth of class mobility: that if you just work hard enough, this could all be yours.

Of course, it can’t. Some doors never open, no matter how hard or honest a day’s work you put in, and that’s doubly true for women. Anna’s con could be called a shortcut, but it took exhausting legwork, confidence, shrewdness and intelligence to cut those corners. Perhaps she was simply faking it until she made it, and truly meant to make it. That seems to be the belief of the many non-wealthy characters in the show who find her a sympathetic, relatable or even admirable character as they wrestle their own career or class struggles.

Most people following this case already know Anna turns out to be not German, but Russian, and not an heiress, but in the parlance of her own taunts, just another broke bitch. But by the show’s end, after we travel back to Anna’s origins, the clarity of our condemnation grows blurrier. Anna paid restitution to her victims, but she never admitted wrongdoing or said she was sorry. Viewers may wonder whether she really should be. She maintains her foundation was always legit. Her victims all bounced back, often higher than where they started, whether in promotions, fame, book deals, or optioned shows. Anna Sorokin would spend four years in prison on a slew of larceny and theft services charges, and now sits in an immigration holding cell awaiting deportation.

Inventing Anna may revel in the grift, but it also shows us why it’s such a powerful yet hollow drug. And in hammering home the empty promise of the American Dream, it also strongly suggests Anna Sorokin may be, like many people, just another one of its many victims who fell for the lie, just as everyone fell for hers. Is that the real story? Maybe. Except for the parts that are completely made up.

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