Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Social Network

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)


You are going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that that’s not true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”  

David Fincher's The Social Network doesn't waste any time. It gets down to business right away and if you thought going in this would just be "The Facebook Movie" it takes only until the end of the verbally explosive opening scene to change your mind. In it, future Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) after she tires of putting up with his obsession with gaining entry into Harvard's "final clubs" because they'll lead to a better life. They talk and talk, firing Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin's dialogue at and over each other at machine gun speed in a crowded, dimly lit bar with the conversation becoming more contentious as he turns sarcastic and condescending. At first, she almost seems interested, almost amused, until it becomes obvious this is someone without a clue how to interact with people, and as shocked as he is at being dumped, we are at how he got a date with her in the first place. Then comes that blistering quote above. That question of whether Zuckerberg really is an asshole never completely goes away. And if he is, does that preclude him from being a genius? Or a visionary? Or maybe he's just lucky. We don't get what resembles an answer until the final scene but it's the aftershock of the opening one that reverberates through the rest of the picture.

That night, the brutal break-up sends Zuckerberg sprinting back to his dorm room to drunkenly blog about Erica and with the help of his best (and only) friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), create a stir with a server-crashing page called "FaceMash," a "Hot or Not" type application where guys get to rate and compare the physical attractiveness of females on campus. With that the idea of Facebook is planted and one of the elements I appreciated most in Sorkin's screenplay is its full acknowledgment that Zuckerberg didn't exactly invent the light bulb here, but expanded on what was already being implemented shoddily by Friendster and MySpace. It's all in the execution, much of which revolves around the added ingredient of "exclusivity," or the notion that people want to feel as if they're in on something cool. That's what the other social networking sites were missing and once it's incorporated into what was then known as "THE Facebook" the possibilities became endless, as did the pitfalls. Ironically, Zuckerberg provides the perceived social acceptance for people online he could never receive himself on campus until meeting the Winklevoss Twins (Armie Hammer), crew team jocks who recruit him as programmer for their new relationship-based "Harvard Connection" web site emerging (coincidentally or not) just as Zuckerberg launches his.

The story is mostly told through flashbacks and interspersed with courtroom depositions from the two lawsuits eventually brought against Zuckerberg by the twins claiming intellectual property theft and from co-founder Saverin, who's cut out of his piece of the pie by his best friend as the company expands. The wedge driving them apart is Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a hard partying hype machine looking to latch on to the next big thing after lawsuits from the music industry bled him dry. What's so funny is as the company grows bigger and bigger the further removed it becomes from the original conceit of re-creating the social experience of college online. With expansion comes at least some degree of exclusivity lost and you're left wondering whether the whole thing really would have been better off confined to campuses, since Facebook, as we know it now, has inadvertently come closer to re-creating the social experience of high school more than college. More importantly, we're also left wondering whether Zuckerberg would have been better off since the "better life" he wished for himself didn't necessarily include being the CEO of a billion dollar company. Money isn't the primary motivator for someone who shows up to courtroom depositions wearing jeans and Adidas flip-flops.

Jesse Eisenberg wasn't just the best choice for Zuckerberg, but the only actor who could have possibly done justice to the role, giving his most complex performance yet and one that should finally end those annoying and unjustified Michael Cera comparisons. Having already occupied one end of the spectrum with awkward portrayals of sensitive nerds who win the girl at the end, he leaves the nerd part intact, but removes nearly every other emotion. His trademark accessibility as a performer is muted, offering the character up as a damaged, rejected soul so frustrated at his social incompetence (which borders on Asperger's) and obsessed with fitting in that he uses the only weapon he has: His I.Q. Surprisingly, Timberlake's performance as opportunistic party animal Sean Parker isn't the strongest among the major supporting players but it's important to put that in perspective since he still steals every scene he's in. At first glance he appears to be playing an exaggerated version of himself but his work grows on you and the more you think back on it the more you have to love the irony of music's biggest superstar giving inspirational speeches extolling the virtues of internet piracy and file sharing.

British actor (and future Spider-Man) Andrew Garfield, steals the movie out from under everyone as Eduardo Saverin, the company's CFO who's betrayed by his best friend. We anticipate a smooth, cool operator in full control but Garfield conveys a certain vulnerability and wimpiness that suggests he's being taken for a ride and used as Zuckerberg's doormat, yet he still manages to find a way to make him not come off as a fool. He earns the most sympathy and while still not totally blameless emerges as the biggest victim no matter how many different sides of the story seem to be presented. It's his story as much as Zuckerberg's and you should probably get familiar with his laptop smashing meltdown at Facebook headquarters as you'll likely be seeing many clips of it over the next few months.

As twin rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (AKA the "Winklevii"), Armie Hammer, aided by Fincher's impressive Benjamin Button-level technology, creates two separate and unique personalities, identical only in never knowing how it feels to not get what they want, as Zuckerberg puts it. Consider how unlikable they could have been and appreciate how Hammer prevents that, to the point that you actually kind of feel bad for these privileged kids and want to take their side, if only because no one else will. With just two and a half scenes and under five minutes of screen time, Rooney Mara is unforgettably devastating as the catalyst of this social earthquake and it'll be a while before I forget that look on Erica's face when she realizes how Zuckerberg humiliated her. Facebook was about a girl, which makes perfect sense since everything always is. Speculation can now start as to whether she's real, fictitious or maybe resides in that gray area in between. 

Watching the deposition scenes and seeing each character's point of view gives us no better understanding of the truth since all that can be said for sure is that each character believes completely what they're saying. Similarly, you're left to watch and wonder how much if any of Sorkin's script (adapted in part from those depositions and Ben Mezrich's non-fiction novel, The Accidental Billionaires) can be considered a reliable interpretation of real-life events. Supposedly, the real Zuckerberg hasn't seen the film but has gone on record stating it's fictional and meant to be fun.  And on that count he's right, especially anything involving the twins and Zuckerberg's hilariously sarcastic "testimony."  Whether he's viewed it or not, or whether he actually means that or not, he may have unintentionally hit the nail on the head in terms of the right approach to take with this. And there are definitely worse things than being an important enough American figure to warrant a picture of this quality.

With Fincher and Sorkin involved I knew this wouldn't actually be ABOUT Facebook, but it's still amazing just how little it is about it and how much is accomplished with what looked on paper to be the most laughable of topics for a feature film. We should have known not to doubt them when we first hear Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' unforgettably unnerving and moody score and see just how dark and gloomy everything looks, confirming that the director who made Fight Club and Zodiac most definitely made this. And as challenging as it should have been to maneuveur around a subject that potentially deals with a lot of talking and sitting around at computers and boardrooms, it's surprising the number of scenes that consist of that, and how tension-filled and exciting they are. 

Comparisons are being made to Citizen Kane, but in all fairness those stem mostly from narrative and thematic similarities, which are plentiful. Like Kane, Zuckerberg gets lonelier and more isolated as he rises to the top, except he manages to spread his loneliness to everyone else. We're all now as socially disconnected as he is, while strangely somehow feeling more connected, at least on some superficial level. Yet there's something admirable and anti-heroic about the character because he set out to achieve a goal and did it the only way he knew how.

How you enter The Social Network is a big determining factor as to how you'll feel when you leave, mainly because of that mysterious phenomenon known as "HYPE," a force capable of cutting down any film, regardless of quality. It seems for a change I was actually able to keep my insanely high expectations mostly in check, resulting in them being exceeded. And as difficult as it's been, I've been careful to contain my praise knowing plenty of opportunities should arise for me to gush about it further in the coming months. It'll be interesting to find out how a film so timely and dependent on current technology will age, but I bet if you showed it to an audience ten years ago and told them this is the direction we're headed, their eyes probably would have popped out of their heads.

It's entirely too early to determine whether it "speaks to a generation" but it definitely speaks to the moment and there is a feeling that its story of greed, loneliness and betrayal has a fighting chance at outlasting the social phenomenon that spawned it. Despite not caring much for Facebook, I'd never suggest the story behind it doesn't deserve to be told, especially when it's constructed as brilliantly as this. The Social Network makes the strongest case yet for Facebook's existence, being that we couldn't have gotten this film without it.

No comments: