The Dropout review: Elizabeth Holmes drama lacks subtlety but is more viable than anything Theranos ever produced

Amanda Seyfried deftly conveys the brittleness of Holmes’s fake-it-till-you-make-it demeanour, but the series is slightly let down by foreshadowing, blunt symbolism

Nick Hilton
Thursday 03 March 2022 19:08 GMT
<p>One thread of ‘The Dropout’ is the troubled romance between Seyfried’s Holmes, and the much older businessman, Sunny Balwani, played by <em>Lost</em>’s Naveen Andrews </p>

One thread of ‘The Dropout’ is the troubled romance between Seyfried’s Holmes, and the much older businessman, Sunny Balwani, played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews

On the small screen, 2022 is shaping up to be the year of misguided tech geniuses. We’ve just seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber’s ultra-driven former CEO Travis Kalanick in Super Pumped, and next month Jared Leto will star as Messianically complex WeWork founder Adam Neumann in WeCrashed. But before that comes the sorry tale of Theranos’s duplicitous wunderkind, Elizabeth Holmes. Adapted from the hit podcast, The Dropout sees Oscar nominee Amanda Seyfried donning the turtleneck and dropping her voice an octave (or two), in order to become the woman whose mysterious downfall has captivated the world for the past couple of years.

In a nutshell, The Dropout picks the Elizabeth Holmes story up in the sun-tinged days of childhood innocence, before rapidly accelerating through a tale of success and failure, rise and fall. “This is Google, this is Yahoo, but this is better,” Holmes tells her audience, “this is gonna help people.” The show’s McGuffin is Theranos’s Edison machine; a tiny, sleek box that, with just a prick of your finger, could offer a huge range of medical diagnoses. Except it couldn’t, of course. This is one thread of The Dropout; a story of hubristic delusion.

The other thread is the troubled romance between Seyfried’s Holmes, and the much older businessman, Sunny Balwani, played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews. He’s clever, charming and rich, but creepily obsessed with this charismatic teenage girl he meets on a Mandarin exchange programme. It’s Balwani’s personal tragedy, the death of his father after failed diagnostics, that inspires Holmes, as does his tendency to rationalise the obsessive pursuit of money. “Nobody thinks you’re a terrorist when you drive a Lamborghini,” he tells her.

Seyfried manages to convey the brittleness of Holmes’s fake-it-till-you-make-it demeanour, and copes admirably with the challenge of bringing the character from adolescence through to adulthood. She also has a doe-eyed innocence that speaks to the series’ most complex question: was Holmes actually a victim? Is this one of those villain origin stories, much loved in Hollywood of late, where benign ambitions and real grievances lead a person astray? “I don’t want to be president, I want to be a billionaire,” she tells her family. “It’s not just about the money,” Holmes says, “you have to have a purpose.” Orbiting around Seyfried’s central performance is an all-star cast: William H Macy, terrifying, as inventor Richard Fuisz; Laurie Metcalf, reliably stern, as pharmacologist Phyllis Gardner; and Stephen Fry, avuncular, as the doomed biochemist Ian Gibbons.

The subtlety of The Dropout’s position on Holmes is not matched by the subtlety of the show in any other department. It has all the smoothed down edges of an iMac, or an Edison machine. In one early scene, the teenage Holmes dances to Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” while staring at a poster of Steve Jobs. In another, Holmes and Balwani, quite literally, burn some money, igniting it in a semi-spiritual process, a sequence so on-the-nose it might as well be a pair of pince-nez.

Later scenes involve Holmes being led further astray, by the corrupting influences of power and money (at one point, she stands on the bow of a yacht owned by Oracle’s Larry Ellison, played by Hart Bochner, and the two of them yell “get the f***ing money!” at the waves) and the increasingly overbearing Balwani. Despite interlacing episodes with testimony from Holmes’s eventual deposition, especially when it contrasts with the truth of the drama as it plays out for us, the show is at times conspicuously economical with what it does, and does not, render on-screen. Some incidents, such as Holmes’s claim that she was raped in college, are played deliberately ambiguously. But others, such as her allegations of assault against Balwani, are presented in a clearer light. The result is a sense that the show isn’t playing quite as fair as it thinks it is.

The final product is, ultimately, more viable than anything Theranos ever produced. Anchored by Seyfried’s charmingly vulnerable central performance, and assisted by the comedy chops of executive producers like New Girl’s Elizabeth Meriwether and Search Party’s Michael Showalter, at its best it feels like The Wolf of Wall Street, if Jordan Belfort were replaced by Paris Geller. But all too often the temptation for foreshadowing, blunt symbolism, or the skewering of LinkedIn babble, gets in the way of this being an effective human drama.

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