As she was conning New York’s wealthiest people, Anna Delvey played many different roles, even if she didn’t play them particularly well. As Jessica Pressler writes in the now-infamous article that inspired the new Netflix series Inventing Anna, “She wasn’t superhot … or super-charming; she wasn’t even very nice.” And yet she managed to convince a coterie of designers, financiers, lawyers, and friends that she was a German heiress, luring them in with a mirage of stolen private jets and $100 bills.
As Delvey, Julia Garner takes on the challenge of pretending to be Anna—who, of course, is also always pretending to be someone else. (Her real name is Anna Sorokin.) From the get-go, Garner-as-Anna is aggressively unlikable, to the point that her character and the show itself are, to put it bluntly, often unpleasant to watch. At the start of the first episode, she calls the viewer fat and lazy, and things do not improve from there. By the final episode, having apparently learned nothing, she refuses to enter the courtroom for her own trial because she doesn’t like the outfit she’s been provided with. In a fit of rage, she accuses her lawyer Todd Spodek (Arian Moayed) of ugliness and incompetence and attempts to fire him—over clothes.
At first glance, Garner, best known for her role as the fiery Ruth on Ozark, might seem like an unlikely choice for Anna, a grifter who charmed her way through New York’s extraordinarily discerning social scene. Garner’s Delvey is not all that magnetic or even particularly believable. Her mottled quasi-German accent is harsh and grating, except for the few times it breaks during emotional scenes, letting a hint of Delvey’s native Russian accent slip through. Rather than inviting the audience into an intimate understanding of the character, Garner maintains a haughty, overwrought detachment from start to finish—rarely if ever showing genuine emotion, changing from a helpless victim to a ruthless narcissist in the blink of an eye when it serves her, never entirely believable in either extreme. Despite the real Delvey’s obsession with looks—one of her most powerful weapons in convincing people she was something she plainly was not—Garner’s Anna is not even particularly glamorous. The one sequence that lavishes attention on her appearance is a slow-motion montage of her courtroom style choices, which is so campy, including a glowy filter and wind machine, that it feels like satire.
But while this isn’t the most obvious way to play Delvey, it perfectly fits Garner, who has often specialized in playing quietly desexualized women, from the ferocious but girlish Ruth in Ozark and the invisible and exploited Jane in The Assistant to the underage Kimberly in The Americans, a role that required her to lust over an older man without becoming an object herself. Garner also has a knack for playing characters with complex, troubled inner worlds, which certainly could be said of Anna.
Yet in contrast to her past performances, Garner never lets the audience see what’s beyond Anna’s many facades. Instead, she’s all smoke and mirrors, false smiles and manufactured breakdowns; the performance itself is a con. At times, Garner’s character choices in Inventing Anna—all the inconsistency and evasiveness, with that awful accent as the cherry on top—might make some feel cheated, or even like she botched the role.
Along with much of the rest of this Shonda Rhimes–produced series, which is altogether underwhelming, overlong, and a bit shallow, Garner’s acting may not be enjoyable to watch. But in the end, her ability to resist boxes of femininity or palatability actually makes her perfect for the role and the story. Her unsettling and opaque performance embodies some of the emptiness and the lies inherent in extreme wealth and the pursuit of it, an emptiness that is at the heart of the Delvey story. It’s easy to admire Delvey and hate her at the same time, just as it’s easy to long for the wealthy world she was briefly part of while hating the cruelty and exclusivity implicit in it. Anna’s lies and egocentrism make her both aspirational and abhorrent, just as exorbitant wealth (and the pursuit of it) so often feels to those on the outside of it.
Perhaps Garner is so disconcerting to watch because in some ways, we recognize parts of ourselves—her endless desire for more and better things she does not need, her willingness to play any role to obtain them. In court, Spodek argues that everyone has a bit of Anna in them, comparing her to Frank Sinatra, who used to pay women to faint at his concerts. Lying for profit is an American tradition. It’s a tradition that runs through Ozark as well, where Garner plays another hustler trying to hit it big using illicit means, except with more guns involved.
Inventing Anna plays up the lies at the heart of extreme wealth from start to finish. At the start, sunlit yachts and luxurious hotels spin a siren song, but by the middle of the show, all the money and the people who spend it so carelessly begin looking absurd. Many of the wealthy people Anna is surrounded by are also scammers, from Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland to pharma fraudster Martin Shkreli, but even people who have obtained their wealth legally seem bland and unexceptional, making it easy to remember they have benefited from a system built on the myth of meritocracy and designed to make the very rich even richer, a system that is arguably a con in and of itself.
Delvey begins her ascent as an aspiring girlboss and mogul, convincing people she is worthy of being made even richer by flaunting her apparently exorbitant wealth, but by the time she’s sobbing on a tennis court in Morocco, drinking Champagne and promising helicopters and 20-course dinners as all her credit cards are declined, her performance is clearly a charade, kept afloat only by the scale of her increasingly valueless self-delusion.
Garner’s portrayal of Anna might make us uncomfortable, if only because there is something deeply unnerving about the world Anna wanted so badly to be a part of. Garner-as-Delvey is strange and a bit creepy, but not as much as the girlboss trope itself. She is strange and a bit creepy like most of the ultrarich, who step over unhoused people on their way to purchase million-dollar paintings. She is strange and a bit creepy like the reporter who obsessively stalks her, her friends, and eventually her family; and like the lawyer who ditches a family vacation to spend time with her—both of whom wind up profiting massively off her story, as Garner and Pressler and Rhimes and many Netflix executives will now. (Sorokin herself received over $300,000 for the rights to her story, most of which went to court costs and repaying debts.)
Through this lens, discomfort may be the proper response to the Anna Delvey story, and Garner’s performance does justice to Anna’s character by provoking these feelings within us. While the series could have played up the glamour and drama of Anna’s character and the high society she infiltrated, instead it makes both out to be shallow, along with viewers who were expecting any sort of fulfillment from the story. In its dissonance and oddness, Julia Garner’s portrayal of Anna Delvey—and the dissonant, odd behemoth that is Inventing Anna—may be exactly what we deserve.