Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Social Network Movie Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

The story of the founding of the most popular and successful social networking site, Facebook, is the foundation for The Social Network, but it’s hardly the meat and potatoes of the story. It’s directed by David Fincher from a dazzling screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, who adapted it from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires.

Fincher got his start in feature films as a studio director-for-hire who always brought a unique vision to such films as Alien 3, Se7en and Fight Club. He strayed a little off the map by opting for more commercial fare with the recent Hollywood favorite The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Although The Social Network is a big commercial enterprise, Fincher gets himself back on track as an auteur. He demands that we take sides with a severely flawed hero – Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) who sold out his best friend and may have partially ripped off the idea from fellow Harvard classmates Divya Marendra (Max Minghella) and Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer).


The opening scene is a firecracker of back-and-forth dialogue between Mark and his then girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) expertly delivered by the two young actors. As usual with Sorkin dialogue you need to have two brains to follow all the nuances. Their conversation dances elegantly around the central topic – Mark wants to do something substantial to get into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs – but even Erica needs to pause for a moment to catch up. Mark reveals himself to be not only brilliant, but also condescending and full of ego, incredulous at the idea that people are not instantly taken in by his genius. It’s not only Sorkin’s writing, but Zuckerberg’s character that jumps around seemingly scattershot. He’s written as a kid who, although he has enough focus to start up an unbelievably successful Internet company, can’t sit still long enough to drink in what’s around him. He’s always on the move, looking for the next big thing. When Erica closes the conversation by telling Mark flat out that when he’s rich and famous and girls still won’t go out with him it won’t be because he’s a nerd but because he’s an asshole.

Eisenberg’s performance as Mark demonstrates a bit more range than the awkward nerds he’s portrayed in Adventureland and Zombieland. As Zuckerberg he exudes tremendous self-assurance mixed with a great deal of biting sarcasm and a bit of smarm.

The genesis of Facebook, as presented in Sorkin’s telling, begins with a revenge stunt undertaken by Zuckerberg against the women on campus. Zuckerberg is a guy who’s tired of losing the girl to the football hero. All he can dream of is doing something that will earn him popularity and recognition. He creates a website that is at once insulting to women and fascinating to men and then crashes the campus server. After that his help is enlisted by Marendra and the Winklevoss twins to write code for their social networking startup. Shortly thereafter he’s creating his own startup known as The Facebook using capital from his wealthy best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who serves as the company’s CFO.

This is a marvelous Aaron Sorkin screenplay. The dialogue is peppered with some very funny throwaway lines, the best of which come from Harvard president and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. The structure is similar to a few of Sorkin’s “West Wing” episodes, best executed in the two-part opener of season 2, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” and the Christmas episode of that season titled “Noel.” The story is told from the point of view of two separate legal depositions for lawsuits against Facebook – one by Saverin and the other by the three men whose idea Mark allegedly stole.

The editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall is brilliant, if somewhat confusing at the start. Eventually you catch on and the story seamlessly jumps between conference rooms with lawyers to parties with half-naked women. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography makes this look distinctly like a David Fincher film, despite it being only his second outing as a DP on a Fincher film (after Fight Club), although he did some camera work on two others. The musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a welcome break from the typical lush strings of most film scores. They provide a dark and textured musical undertone to complement the underbelly of a story that is superficially light.

What makes the structure effective is how it presents one story hurtling toward two conclusions at once: the ultimate settlement payment to Marendra and the “Winklevi” (as Zuckerberg refers to them at one point) and the disintegration of Mark’s friendship with Eduardo. When we know where the story is ultimately headed we sit with baited tension to see how it unfolds. What will be the impetus that splits up these two mates who started a brilliant Internet venture together?

The thing that The Social Network apart from other big studio biopics or based-on-true-stories is that it’s got more to say than what the plot provides. This is not just the story of the founding of Facebook and the legal troubles Mark Zuckerberg had to deal with following his rise to fortune and fame. It’s a portrait of a big mind corrupted by petty jealousies and insecurities. For all his cocksure bravura in the face of Harvard bigwigs and high-powered attorneys, Mark is still just a guy who wants to be part of the club. It’s the reason he invented Facebook in the first place. He wanted to provide an exclusive club for Harvard students and he wanted himself at the center of it. Eduardo’s invitation to join one of the Harvard undergraduate clubs, Mark can barely contain his resentment.

There’s been some backlash of complaints that the film has no substantial female roles, that all the women have been marginalized to the roles of floozies, drunks and sycophants. Here’s some news: not all stories have significant female roles. Sorkin’s obvious intention is to marginalize the women of the story because the catalyst for the original idea that sparked Facebook was Zuckerberg’s attempt to get revenge on a girl he thought had wronged him. If there’s a misogynistic thread in the script, it’s because Zuckerberg started from a misogynistic point of view.

Justin Timberlake enters about midway through the film as Napster inventor Sean Parker who secured important California investors (including PayPal creator Peter Thiel) for Facebook and became involved in the business end of the company. Timberlake is quite good, playing Parker as a bit of a narcissist obsessed with his own greatness, but secretly ashamed of his inability to have created something lasting. He latches onto Zuckerberg and Facebook as a ploy to recapture his lost glory and live vicariously through another’s fame. Who knows if this is really how it happened. We have to remember that the source material for the story is a book that took the jilted Saverin as its primary source. Saverin had every reason to see Parker the way he’s depicted here, and also the unflattering light shone on Zuckerberg, for that matter.


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