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‘The Dropout’ Premiere Review: Elizabeth Holmes Drama is a bit of a Bloody Mess

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By now, seemingly everyone knows of the infamous Elizabeth Holmes. The story of the Silicon Valley visionary who shamelessly defrauded investors at every turn took the world by storm when her biomedical empire, Theranos, came crashing down in 2015. Now, Hulu hopes to capitalize on this global interest with the release of its highly anticipated drama, “The Dropout,” which stars Amanda Seyfried as the con artist once touted as the youngest self-made female billionaire. However, this star-studded attempt to provide a behind-the-scenes look into Holmes’ life has some glaring issues.

The first of three episodes that were added to Hulu on March 3 focuses on Holmes’ short-lived stint at Stanford University before she dropped out in her sophomore year to chase her dream of revolutionizing the biomedical industry. Immediately, this starting point for the story raises a question that will pester viewers throughout the premiere: Am I supposed to believe that Amanda Seyfried looks like a freshman in college?

While there is nothing inherently wrong with actors playing younger people, Seyfried, who is 36 in real life, does not succeed in passing for an 18-year-old. Instead, the result is a jarring discrepancy between the facts of the story and the image on the screen, which ultimately distracts viewers from the show’s better aspects. Unfortunately, the show’s heavy focus on Holmes’ ambition in her young adulthood only exacerbates this uneasy viewing experience.

Age disparity aside, Seyfried does deliver a rather engrossing portrayal of Holmes. Her subtle facial expressions are especially impressive and her imitation of Holmes’ notoriously artificially deep voice is hard to audibly distinguish from a YouTube clip of the Theranos founder herself. Most of all, Seyfried does a wonderful job of capturing Holmes’ evolution as a master of deception, with the scenes of her lying becoming ever more believable throughout the first three episodes.

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Sadly, Seyfried’s performance is hindered by what seems to be one of the biggest flaws in this show’s writing: an extreme lack of subtlety. From the very first moment of the show, the dialogue beats viewers over the head with incessant references to Holmes’ ambition, as if it is not obvious from the fact that she started a company at 19 years old. One scene, in which Seyfried manically dances about her bedroom while listening to a song with the lyrics “I’m in a hurry to get things done,” is sure to elicit many eye-rolls. This moment and others when Seyfried screams about her desire to accumulate wealth and status reduce this portrayal to mere caricature.

This lack of subtlety also extends to the show’s attempts to portray Holmes’ lack of social skills. There are several scenes throughout the first three episodes in which Seyfried looks into a mirror and practices for upcoming social interactions; one such sequence shows her trying to perfect her smile in a way that is eerily reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix's scene in “Joker.” These purposefully unsettling scenes may be entertaining, but their explicitly villainous undertones border on the exploitative.

Fortunately for viewers, “The Dropout” is hardly devoid of entertainment value. William H. Macy and Laurie Metcalf both make brief but compelling appearances in the first three episodes, and it seems likely that these big-name stars will get more outsized roles as the show goes on. And, like any story about scams of such a large magnitude, there is something intrinsically fascinating about untangling the web of lies that will keep viewers engaged regardless of the series’ cheesy moments. Plus, the third episode ends with a montage set to Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” which is one of this year’s more clever television moments.

For fans of “The Social Network” who wished the film had ended with Facebook being a billion-dollar hoax, “The Dropout” will be sure to satisfy. But just like Theranos, don’t expect it to change the world.

—Staff writer Brady M. Connolly can be reached at brady.connolly@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradyconnolly44.

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