Several episodes into Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prepares to wage a appeal offensive on the media. “Let’s show these motherfuckers who the fuck Travis Kalanick really is, huh?” he declares to his staff, assured that his character will likely be sufficient to show the tide on years of unhealthy press.
We the viewers know higher, and never simply because out right here in the true world, we’ve already seen how this story ends. Super Pumped, as much as that time and past, has been about little however exhibiting us who the fuck Travis Kalanick actually is. And whereas the image it paints isn’t at all times the prettiest one, the truth that it’s so laser-focused on Travis to the exclusion of all others seems like its personal odd type of flattery.
Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber
The Bottom Line
Intermittently fascinating however in the end superficial.
Based on the nonfiction e-book by Mike Isaac and tailored for the display screen by Billions cocreators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Super Pumped chronicles Travis’ fast rise and equally dizzying downfall over the course of the 2010s. It’s a narrative that’s already been documented extensively, in comparatively latest headlines, and Super Pumped follows what movies like The Big Short and I, Tonya have made into a regular template for narratives like these. Its dramatic scenes are augmented with fast smash cuts, aggressive voiceover (courtesy of Billions superfan Quentin Tarantino), video-game-inspired graphics and the occasional fourth-wall-breaking monologue, with a distinctly Social Network-y rating for good measure.
These bells and whistles could not really feel notably new, however they’re efficient sufficient for leisure. Combined with Super Pumped‘s rapid-fire, reference-laden dialogue — very like on Billions, nobody in Super Pumped merely says what they imply after they can namecheck Secretariat or Alexander Hamilton or Fast & Furious 6 first — they inject an impish humorousness into what might in any other case have come off as a dry boardroom drama.
Gordon-Levitt proves a sturdy anchor for the present’s wild tonal shifts, weaponizing the boyish appeal that’s outlined a lot of his profession. What Travis’ enterprise companions and family members initially indulge as the brash ambition of youth reveals itself over time to be one thing far much less engaging. For all his huge concepts — and Super Pumped suggests it’s ruthlessness as a lot as brilliance that obtained Travis the place he’s — he’s not a lot an enfant horrible as a giant outdated child, throwing mood tantrums at his board members and whining to his hardworking staff that he has to do every thing round right here.
That angle marks a change of tempo from earlier tech biopics like The Social Network and Steve Jobs, which sought to humanize and glorify its topics whereas additionally acknowledging their colder, extra callous tendencies. In Super Pumped, even tech giants like Google’s Sergey Brin (David Krumholtz) and Larry Page (Ben Feldman) come off extra like socially awkward oddballs a la Silicon Valley than the untouchable geniuses of legend. Still, each Super Pumped and Travis appear intensely conscious of the excellence between Travis and the Silicon Valley success tales that got here earlier than him. In scene after scene, he compares himself to males like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, typically to rely himself amongst their vaunted quantity, however simply as typically to whine that he doesn’t command the identical respect they do.
But if Super Pumped doesn’t precisely sing Travis’ praises, it does lavish him with consideration — a lot of it, it appears to have little left for anybody or the rest. The bigger tradition of tech worship that Uber got here up in goes largely unexplored, in order that it’s arduous to inform if Uber and Kalanick are the aberration, or if mainly good and normal-seeming Lyft founder John Zimmer (John Magaro) is. Travis’ is the one psychology the collection appears desirous to delve into; almost everybody else is merely an adjunct, impediment or witness to the Travis Kalanick story.
That extends even to Uber board members Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler) and Arianna Huffington (Uma Thurman), the 2 non-Travis characters who get probably the most depth and display screen time. Chandler exudes a no-nonsense decency that echoes his signature Friday Night Lights function, whereas Thurman appears to be having a blast adopting a thick accent and a syrupy smile to purr candy nothings into her hotheaded founder’s ear. (Brat that he’s, he’s simply manipulated by traces like “Serving yourself is serving the company, which is serving the world.”) But they spend almost all of their time speaking to Travis, speaking about Travis, fascinated with Travis. Their personal motivations are vaguely indicated to be financial, which on the one hand is honest — greenback quantities within the billions will warp anybody’s mind — and alternatively feels too pat to serve as the muse of an fascinating dynamic.
Nowhere are each the collection’ strengths and weaknesses extra evident than in its fifth episode (of 5 despatched to critics, and of seven whole for the season). Forced to clarify Uber’s latest troubles to Apple CEO Tim Cook (Hank Azaria) — by no means thoughts that the framing gadget doesn’t make a lot sense — Super Pumped piles on elaborate graphics, flashbacks and counter-narratives inside these flashbacks. One goes to a feminine worker, Susan (Eva Victor), taking Uber to activity for its poisonous atmosphere of misogyny and sexual harassment, whereas the opposite facilities on a driver, Fawzi (Mousa Hussein Kraish), whose fortunes rise and fall on the whims of company coverage.
In some methods, their accounts appear to symbolize a turning level for the collection. They give a highlight and a microphone to those that’d beforehand struggled within the background whereas Travis and his sycophants had been high-fiving one another in his workplace, and their unexpectedness within the second make us wish to sit up and concentrate. But it rapidly turns into clear that Super Pumped shouldn’t be a lot desirous about both Susan or Fawzi as individuals with their very own agendas or interior lives. They’re simply personifications of speaking factors, outlined totally by their relationships to Uber.
After listening to Travis’ more and more baroque collection of excuses, throughout which he deflects and denies the issues he can and offloads blame for the issues he can’t, Tim responds with a plea: “Travis, this is all you. You must see that. Please tell me you see that.” Travis clearly can not, it doesn’t matter what he mumbles to Tim, as a result of as has been effectively established by then, that’s simply who Travis is.
The greater problem is that it’s not completely clear the collection can see it both. Super Pumped has its share of pleasures, from a sprawling solid of acquainted faces (Kerry Bishé, Fred Armisen and Elisabeth Shue are additionally amongst them) to a catchy soundtrack full of the likes of Queen and Alice in Chains. But with out something deep or recent to say about what we’re seeing, all of it quantities to not far more than a shallow portrait of a self-proclaimed asshole.