‘Super Pumped’: Showtime’s slick series on the CEO of Uber really goes places
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays co-founder Travis Kalanick as a possessed version of the Energizer Bunny, outlasting and out-jerking everyone in his path.
In the closing moments of “The Social Network,” Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg tells Rashida Jones’ Marylin Delpy he’s not a bad guy, and before Marylin exits the room she says, quite kindly: “You’re not an ass----, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”
In the Showtime limited series “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Travis Kalanick doesn’t have to try to be an ass---- because that’s how he wakes up every morning and that’s how he conducts himself all day and he couldn’t hide it if he tried — and he’s not interested in trying. Travis is proud of the fact he’s a toxic human cocktail of brainpower, greed, insecurities, ambition and cutthroat ruthlessness, and he wants to see those same traits in his employees, even asking them, “Are you an ass----?,” when they interview for a position with Uber.
Premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, with future episodes airing on subsequent Sundays.
Echoes of “The Social Network” reverberate throughout this slick, cool, darkly funny albeit somewhat superficial anthology, which was created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (partners on “Rounders” and “Billions”) and is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Mike Isaac. With Gordon-Levitt careening about like a possessed version of the Energizer Bunny, outlasting and out-jerking everyone in his path, and marvelous supporting performances from Kyle Chandler, Uma Thurman, Kerry Bishé and Hank Azaria, this is a fictionalized and greatly stylized version of the Uber story, told in the same vein as the aforementioned “The Social Network” and films such as “The Big Short,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “I, Tonya.” We know a lot of this stuff is heightened reality, but the foundation is based on fact, and this is one wild ride(share).
“Super Pumped” kicks off in the early 2010s, before most of us had heard of Uber, with Gordon-Levitt’s Travis pitching Kyle Chandler’s Bill Gurley, a top investor with the venture capital firm Benchmark. (Chandler is squarely in his comfort zone playing the measured and ethically centered Gurley; imagine Coach Eric Taylor from “Friday Night Lights,” only with piles of money.) Gurley agrees to pump millions into Uber, despite his reservations about Travis’ hubris. From this point forward, Gurley will be the wise, paternal figure counseling caution and fair play, and while he’s often frustrated and at times outraged by Travis’ ethically dubious machinations, he’s got his “unicorn” and he knows Uber is going to be a global phenomenon.
With jazzy graphics punctuating certain plot points, the characters dropping pop-culture references everywhere and Quentin Tarantino providing the occasional voice-over narration, “Super Pumped” moves at a breezy pace (I’ve seen five of the seven episodes) and follows a steady pattern in each episode: Travis steamrolls through business meetings, conventions, one-on-ones, company brainstorming sessions and life in general in his trademark scorched-Earth fashion, moving forward like a shark and never taking responsibility for the consequences of his actions, while Bill does his best to make sure Uber is operating within the framework of the law and the boundaries of decent behavior.
Good luck with that, Bill.
When Lyft emerges as a threat to the burgeoning Uber empire, Travis grows ever more callous and careless, brushing off legitimate concerns about labor practices, rampant sexual harassment and misogyny within his company and the use of an internal program called Greyball that is used to identify and deny service to certain individuals.
Even when Uber’s app is flagged for allegedly hiding unethical tracking features and Apple threatens to permanently ban the app, effectively ending the company, Travis is brash and only superficially apologetic in a meeting with Tim Cook (Hank Azaria), who is clearly repelled by nearly everything Travis says. (Cook retains his cool, but after Travis name-drops Steve Jobs, Cook tells Travis that Jobs wouldn’t like him. On other occasions, Travis is told that while he’s a formidable tech “founder,” he’ll never be in the same league as Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos. This, of course, drives Travis nuts.)
Elisabeth Shue, who is only 17 years older than Gordon-Levitt and doesn’t look like she’d be Travis’ mother, is nevertheless solid as Bonnie Kalanick, who tries to remind her son to be a good person because she KNOWS he can be a good person. Uma Thurman twirls her accent like verbal spaghetti and has great fun playing the wily and sophisticated Arianna Huffington, who becomes Travis’ friend and adviser, while Kerry Bishé as Austin Geidt and Eva Victor as Susan Fowler are outstanding as two gifted and hardworking employees at Uber who are horrified by the rampant sexual harassment and stunned when Uber, i.e., Travis, brushes off their complaints as the cost of doing business.
Uber’s growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. A little more than a decade ago, the idea of jumping into a stranger’s car because they have a sticker on the windshield and they signed up for an app — or allowing a stranger to jump into YOUR car — would have seemed far-fetched, a bit ludicrous and dangerous. Now, “I’ll get us an Uber” is part of the daily vernacular. It’s been a remarkable ascension, but as “Super Pumped” so adroitly lays out, the road has been filled with some horrific potholes, many of them created by Travis Kalanick.