October 2, 2010

The Social Network (10/02/2010)

Lettergrade: A-

There's so much breakneck dialogue in The Social Network that it begins even before the Columbia Pictures logo has faded to black. Not a speck of it feels superfluous or out of place, however, in this, an excellent going-into-business picture about the formation of the internet phenomenon known as Facebook, and its principal founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He doesn't catch much of a break from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the famed West Wing creator / producer, who writes the world's youngest billionaire as a wildly anti-social, self-absorbed dickhead, or from director David Fincher, who seemingly took a major cue from Citizen Kane and the downfall of Michael Corelone in The Godfather part II when staging it.

Much of the movie follows the Kane model of telling the story in flashbacks, allowing us to skip around from event to event and to greatly truncate parts of the story that the film doesn't want to spend a lot of time with. The central device here are various hearings and depositions centering around two simultaneous lawsuits in which the damaged parties explain why they feel they were wronged by Zuckerburg (and are therefore owed money). Ala Rashomon and One Night At McCool's, we get conflicting testimony on what went down and how. My wife, a tax attorney, appreciated that it's essentially a courtroom drama that does not take place in a courtroom but in the meeting rooms of various lawfirms, where most real lawyerin' gets done.

There is much about the movie that is endlessly fascinating. The technical and business side of how Facebook became what it is and grew to over half a billion members since its short life began in 2004 is mesmerizing in and of itself, and Sorkin dishes it all out in a way that's clear and easy to comprehend while not talking down to the audience. And then of course there's the curious case of Zuckerberg himself, depicted in the film as a perennial outcast who cannot get terribly far into the Harvard social scene (or even maintain any close friendships), and yet his understanding of how his classmates interact with eachother and how that might translate to his internet venture is uncanny. He cannot listen or interface, and has no humility or modesty. He speaks endlessly about random topics, flitting from subject to subject in a way that's seemingly designed to be just as disparate as a common selection of status updates. Jessie Eisenberg plays him, and if the picture has a falling down point, it could be that at times his performance is so twisted and vindictive that it somewhat strains credibility, getting slightly into Mommy Dearest territory.

His best friend and initial Facebook CFO is played by Andrew Garfield (who also appears in Never Let Me Go this month). Garfield leaves a hell of an impression in this movie as one of the few victims of Zuckerberg's ambition who manages to gain our sympathy. Garfield's Eduardo Saverin, is one of the few real life people who also participated in Ben Mezrich's much disputed book "The Accidental Billionaires," upon which Sorkin based his screenplay. Considering that, perhaps the fine light he appears in here is not an accident. Other characters, like the ultra douchy Winklevoss twins who claim that Zuckerberg stole their concept and ran with it, don't quite earn the same emotion. Nevertheless, another standout performance comes from Justin Timberlake, who appears as a Napster founder Sean Parker, the guy who arranges for Facebook to go big and broad at a key point of its infancy, and who likes to challenge business conventions and create trouble in a Tyler Durden sort of way.

It's interesting to see two very distinctive talents like Sorkin and Fincher (who previously directed Se7en, Zodiac and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button), team up on the same picture together, while both managing to hang on to what makes each so distinctive. Even familiar bio-pic conventions are played very smoothly by the two and given refreshing twists. During the first half of the picture, I appreciated that the picture cleverly shows where a lot of Zuckerberg's inspiration for Facebook's various features might have come from, without ever having the equivalent of a giant lightbulb go off over his head.

Ultimately, however, it's the damning portrayal and the extreme darkness surrounding Zuckerbeg's character that will probably generate the most thought and debate with this picture. Forget about the implication that he betrayed, screwed over, and abandoned nearly everyone he was even close to being friendly with... the guy, as depicted by the film, has generated his online world more out of sheer loneliness and desperation than out of any desire to connect with others. He was brilliant enough to come up with the framework and architecture of the site, but is hopelessly lacking any personality with which to fill it, or any skills with which to develop the real-life friendships that all those Facebook links supposedly represent. In the end, he's still a lonely guy, albeit in a much fancier room, peeking out into the personal lives of others while sorely neglecting his own.

I have no idea how much this image has in common with the real Mark Zuckerberg, but if that's not a cautionary note about virtual online communities taking the place of real interaction and human experience, I'm not sure what is.

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