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Greed is Good in Showtime's Compelling Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber

Mark Zuckerberg hovers over “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” without being in it (at least in the first five episodes). Uber’s co-founder and now-former CEO Travis Kalanick wants to be the next Zuck, and the Showtime series wants to be just like the movie made about him, “The Social Network.” For a lot of minds out there, that’s an instant sell—a seven-episode series that aims to give you the same colorful banter, electronic score, and cultural perspective as David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. But being an imitator can only be so charming, and those desired comparisons only make clear what "Super Pumped" lacks. 

Recognizing that it's working with a familiar cool, the series has a narration from none other than Quentin Tarantino. For a show that never hesitates for an animated diversion of what’s going on (a little Adam McKay being thrown in the mix), Tarantino’s voice does add a sharp edge, especially when he says “motherf**ker” to emphasize the power of some figure given a snazzy entrance. Tarantino becomes the spirit of it: this is a show about boardroom violence; it can be fun to watch until it gets redundant, or numbing. 

Adapted from the book by Mike Isaac and created by "Billions" storytellers Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Beth Shacter, the show is informative most of all about the long, scandalous saga of one of the most popular rideshare apps, and a Silicon Valley movement. Much of it is reenacted here with a focused sense on how these many developments were personal. It’s about Travis’ ego to be the next Zuck or Bezos, or to crush John Zimmer of Lyft, or show such and such who is the real boss. It’s all about winning. 

This can be compelling up to a point, and it is exciting to see this highlight reel reenacted with such detail to events that the public might have forgotten. But the series can lose some of its juice when trying to create any larger dramatic stakes out of Travis’ latest power play, or sneaky move that’s illegal. There are long passages in which the series doesn’t have a gut punch, in part because we can only look in on the horror show. And there are so many scenes that take place in modern conference rooms, where quick-witted metaphors about velvet ropes, unicorns, sports, or what have you, are thrown around by men all speaking in the same gruff voice. It’s all part of style, and sometimes it makes the script's creative spins on real events seem extra hokey. 

The role of Travis Kalanick, however, seems made for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It gives him the kind of rich role he hasn’t had in a long time, and lets him play someone that allows the smarmy side, and the boyish. He’s believable getting heated over the latest move behind his back, and yet he’s bendable enough as someone who would still take advice from his mother (Elisabeth Shue) while dealing with a multi-billion dollar company that has piles of image problems. And then there’s the smile he sometimes flashes, forced and awkward and a bit monstrous, his eyes cringing, pretending to be nice. It’s weird and kind of perfect each time he whips it out. 

Other characters are given much less of a chance to be fleshed out, revolving around the Uber story but sometimes having little life of their own. The most care goes to Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley, an investor from the beginning who becomes a type of father figure to Travis, and whose older school methods of business strategy clash against Travis’ need to win because Travis is an asshole who hires assholes in a business that rewards assholes. Kerry Bishé is fascinating as Austin, a loyal employee who helps recruit drivers but then goes up against the company's toxic misogynist culture in later episodes. Uma Thurman joins the series later as Arianna Huffington, who becomes a type of spiritual guide for Travis in a role that achieves imitation but doesn't give the sense there is much else going on. That last criticism applies to other versions of heavyweights thrown into the mix, like Tim Cook and Larry Page, and "Super Pumped" almost gets a little campy edge with its self-serious presentations of them. 

It’s not until episode five (the last one offered to press) that the series shows how it can be the most interesting by embracing a wider scale, by reckoning with Uber's ideology outside its tense board meetings. In this case, it addresses the larger toxic parts about the Uber business through time spent with a driver named Kamel (Moussa Hussein Kraish) and an employee name Susan (Eva Victor). Both face harassment from Uber employees, and have to decide whether it’s worth pushing back against it. 

But when the series is all about Travis taking over the world with his app, “Super Pumped” brings up the always debatable Truffaut idea about whether it’s possible to make an anti-war war movie. "Super Pumped" lays out its battles for the strategy, not for the emotion or psychology. Much of the drama breaks Travis’ world down to gory victories, to snake-like moves that his righthand man Emil Michael (Babak Tafti) usually calls “genius” with an amazed look on his face. The fact that you can watch “Super Pumped” and readily imagine a bunch of wannabe Travis Kalanicks taking notes, like Gordon Geckos watching "Wall Street" decades ago, feels pretty damning of what this series' entertainment does and does not achieve: it’s not getting underneath this toxic mindset enough, this violent hunger to be the next Zuck. But it is giving it shots of adrenaline, over and over. 

Five episodes screened for review. "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber" premieres on Sunday, February 27th with a new episode each week. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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