“Life of a VIP”
I feel as if Anna Chlumsky is an Academy Award waiting to happen, as soon as Hollywood’s various studios recognise her immense talent and cast her into an appropriate feature. She arguably remains most famous for her childhood performances as Vada Saltenfuss in the popular My Girl movies, however roles in In the Loop (2009) and HBO’s Veep have demonstrated that the adult Chlumsky is a stunning comedy performer and generally superb actor. Her latest production is Inventing Anna, a ‘based on a true story’ Netflix drama produced by Shonda Rhimes. Its first episode shows a lot of promise and story potential, but Chlumsky is by far its biggest selling point. She delivers a realistic, engaging, and multi-layered performance with charm, humour, and an unexpected patchwork of flaws.
Inventing Anna recounts the widely publicised case of Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, a Russian-German con artist who defrauded New York’s elite society of more than a quarter of a million dollars. Rather than focus on Sorokin herself, the series instead follows journalist Vivian Kent (Chlumsky) and her efforts to secure an interview from and write an investigative article about Sorokin. It is by far the more interesting approach, one that treats Sorokin (played in an unsettling manner by Julia Garner) as a puzzle to be solved. This first episode sets up all of the characters and situations, but it remains to be seen where it will go from here.
The way the episode sets up Vivian’s life and career is certainly intriguing. She writes for a New York magazine, bristling at her unsympathetic editor and relegated to ‘scriberia’ – the back corner of the office where all of the out-of-favour journalists reside. She is pregnant, with a few months left before she goes on leave, and there is a heavy implication that once gone she might not be invited back. Vivian’s pursuit of Sorokin’s story is a visible act of desperation: a ‘hail mary’ run at a piece that will restore her reputation, uplift her career, and solve all of her problems. It does feel that in her run for success Vivian is going to trip up badly. Something about the way this first episode is written by Rhimes makes that seem inevitable.
The episode surrounds Vivian with disagreeable men, primarily her odious editor Paul (Tim Guinee) and an unsympathetic husband named Jack (Anders Holm). It feels like a commentary on how men mistreat women, and it is interesting that Rhimes balances that with unexpectedly poor behaviour on Vivian’s part. She is so involved with her career that she forgets to go to an ultrasound. She spoils learning her baby’s sex for the first time because she is so preoccupied with Sorokin’s case. As a journalist she should be visiting Sorokin in prison via proper media requests, but instead she is repeatedly sneaking through via ‘personal’ visits. Add in Anna Chlumsky’s performance and you have one of the best protagonists in ages.
Julia Garner plays Sorokin somewhere between soap opera and parody, something that feels as if it shouldn’t work but actually turns out weirdly addictive. She is brutal in conversation (‘Are you pregnant or are you just so very, very fat?’) and seemingly deluded given her activities and incarceration. Garner’s affected accent is particularly strange, and sets Sorokin up as a tantalising mystery.
It doesn’t all work. A subplot involving Sorokin’s lawyer (Arian Moayed) plays him as remarkably idealistic for a con artist’s defence attorney, and the journalist POV for the series threatens to make it all a case of telling without showing. As a first episode, however, this has definitely done its job – it makes one eager to see the second.