Sunday, February 27, 2022

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, on Showtime

New York City’s corrupt taxi medallion system deserved to be disrupted and a guy like Travis Kalanick certainly can be disruptive. He founded Uber, so he sure gave medallion owners a kick in the wallet. The concept of Uber seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, but it had to overcome many governmental regulatory efforts to strangle it in infancy. It is a wild and wooly venture capitalism story told in Brian Koppelman & David Levien’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, based on Mark Isaac’s nonfiction book, which starts tonight on Showtime.

Kalanick’s first start-up failed spectacularly badly, as we see in flashbacks. Obviously, Uber will be different, since you most likely have the app on your phone. The turning point for Ubercab (as it was first known) came with a life-changing investment from Bill Gurley’s Benchmark Capital. It still wasn’t off to the races yet. First, they had to weather campaigns orchestrated by city transportation regulators to shut them down in San Francisco and Portland. The turning point came when they overcame the opposition of our former idiot mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is depicted as the cartoonish fool he truly is.

Of course, the drama is only beginning. Gurley constantly pressures Kalanick to do better by their drivers and he is justly skeptical of the extravagantly expensive attempt to crack the Mainland China market. Bringing in a huge investment from Google only increases the boardroom intrigue. That is even more true when Ariana Huffington accepts a seat on the board and a position as Kalanick’s spiritual guru. All the while, questions regarding app privacy and office-place harassment, fester and metastasize in the background.

Reportedly, Kalanick is an avowed Libertarian, but we never get a sense of that from the first five episodes provided for review (out of eight) of the prospective seasonal anthology. Presumably, that was to make him less sympathetic, right? After all, they make him look decidedly jerkish when it comes to his romantic relationships.

Still, it is highly entertaining to watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt huff, puff, pontificate, and self-aggrandize as Kalanick. It is a gloriously over-the-top, but frequently hilarious performance. Richard Schiff and Fred Armisen are appropriately slimy and sleazy as Uber’s regulatory nemeses in San Francisco and Portland. It will blow the minds of 1980s kids to see Elizabeth Shue playing Kalanick’s mom, but brings a grounded, earthy center to the series, while Uma Thurman does the weirdest Greek accent ever as Huffington (but her Bond villainess shtick is pretty funny). However, Kyle Chandler earnestly conveys Gurley’s ethical concerns and enterprising spirit, which really makes him
Super Pumped’s primary rooting interest.

Sometimes, Koppelman & Levien try too hard to be clever with hip and edgy graphics and cartoons. The real fun of
Super Pumped is the razor-sharp dialogue that sounds so crazy it must be true. At its best, it echoes the shrewdness and business savviness of Barbarians at the Gate, but it is far more judgmental towards its colorful characters.

Perhaps it was by accident, but
Super Pumped provides a timely reminder how doing business in China almost always leads to heartache and regret for American firms, because the CCP deliberately stacks the deck against them. The time for disengagement is now. However, the show not infrequently loses sight of the degree to which Uber (and its competitors) have improved riders’ lives. There is a reason we downloaded the app. Still, the scandalous dish and snarly office politics are addictive. Highly recommended as venture capital soap opera, Super Pumped: The Battle of Uber premieres tonight (2/27) on Showtime.