Tuesday, October 5, 2010


review by Mark Pezzula

Directed by David Fincher

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

Repeat after me: "The Social Network is not a movie about Facebook." Say it again. Now again. There, glad that's over with.

The Social Network is a film about Facebook the same way Citizen Kane is a movie about a newspaper or Reservoir Dogs is about a jewelry heist. Swap out Facebook for any other technological breakthrough and you'd have the same movie. In The Social Network, the internet's most popular social networking website simply provides a backdrop and catalyst for writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher to develop and execute what is simply one of the most intriguing and fascinating cinematic stories of the year. The title may refer to a relatively recent invention that may or may not stand the test of time (my guess: it will), but the film itself absolutely will (and should) be remembered, because it's about character, first and foremost.

Jesse Eisenberg is Mark Zuckerberg, and we first meet the future youngest billionaire in the world as his girlfriend Erica (the gorgeous Rooney Mara, instantly forgiven for starring in the abysmal A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) becomes his ex-girlfriend after Mark, through a series of passive-aggressive exchanges, denigrates her in a dozen different (and often cringe-inducing) ways. This, we come to find, is the way that Zuckerberg treats most everyone in his life.

After a night of drunk-blogging (the 21st century's version of drunk-dialing) and creating a "who's the hotter chick?" website called Face Mash (and pissing off a majority of the female population at Harvard in the process), Zuckerberg is approached by three entrepreneurs: twins (and row team members) Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to help them create a social networking site strictly for Harvard University students. Using their idea as a springboard, Zuckerberg instead creates The Facebook, a similar (but not exactly) site that becomes an instant sensation first on Harvard's campus, then, with the help of his best friend and means of capital Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) a hit on several major Ivy League schools in the great northeast. As The Facebook becomes bigger, Zuckerberg finds himself in the middle of two lawsuits: one involving the Winklevoss' and Divya, and the other involving Saverin.

Both the litigious and technological aspects of The Social Network are handled in a way by Fincher and Sorkin as to be easily digestible to the average movie-goer. There's a chunk of time in the first 20 minutes of the film devoted specifically to Zuckerberg's use of computer code in creating Face Mash, and what could have been a dry and un-engaging cinematic moment is transformed into a practically riveting section of the film, where Fincher wisely demonstrates on-screen exactly what Zuckerberg is doing and then inter cuts it with scenes from an exclusive Havard party, which Zuckerberg purposely misses out on in order to attack Face Mash. Zuckerberg's life revolves around creating something monumental and smashing boundaries (and friendships, and reputations, and chimneys) in the process.

As Zuckerberg, Eisenberg exudes the relative coldness and dismissive attitude that Sorkin's script calls for out of the character, but for all of the put-down, condescending remarks, and snide responses, Eisenberg is somehow still engaging. As Sorkin has written him, Zuckerberg is decidedly not a likeable character. Except he is. He's infuriating and fascinating at the same time. Eisenberg has received criticism for being a Michael Cera clone, but a closer look reveals a much deeper persona. There's something going on behind Zuckerberg's cold and calculating glance, and the way Eisenberg moves his eyes to portray this is the mark of great work.

The Social Network gradually becomes an ensemble piece as it progresses, at some points abandoning Zuckerberg to follow Saverin and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the online mastermind behind such short-lived prospects as Napster. Parker - despite failed Dot Com start-ups, alleged drug problems, and paranoid delusions - becomes Zuckerberg's right-hand man. Ready to take risks and entrenched with a charming, if overbearing, personality that Saverin does not, Parker introduces Zuckerberg to the party-down/wire-up atmosphere of life in Silicon Valley. These scenes take on a different but nonetheless engaging tone, and it's a compliment to David Fincher's directorial skills that they feel so connected and an extension of the film's first two thirds.

I keep on using the word "engaging" because, well, The Social Network is.  And its most engaging aspect comes in the form of Andrew Garfield's performance as Eduardo Saverin. Garfield recently signed on to play Peter Parker in the Spiderman reboot, and after seeing him in this and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I have no doubts about the man's ability to do many, many a great thing. Saverin is portrayed as a victim in The Social Network, and Garfield is appropriately sympathetic. He's also naive and too trusting of Zuckerberg. But ultimately, when he is pushed against the ropes by Zuckerberg and Parker, Saverin snaps. And his near-breakdown is a small but gloriously awesome cinematic moment, propelled by Garfield's great performance. In what is one of my favorite scenes of the year (specifically because of Garfield's work in it), the young actor displays anger, regret, and genuine sadness all in a matter of a few lines.

While Eisenberg and Garfield are the most impressive of the cast, Timberlake holds his own as well. The former N'SYNC'er has blossomed into a fine actor (and comedian, if you've seen his work on SNL) and a stand-out talent. Timberlake proves yet again that he's more than a former boy-band singer.

On top of the impressive cast is Trent Reznor's equally fascinating soundtrack (sample here). Made up of abstract soundscapes, digital blips, and old-fashioned orchestral arrangements, Reznor (former singer/composer of Nine Inch Nails) has created a soundtrack that mimics the cold and desolate mind of Mark Zuckerberg but also features dramatic and warm moments, perhaps reflecting college life in one of America's oldest Ivy League schools.

Fincher, by the way, may not capture life on Harvard's campus as it really is (I have no idea what Harvard life is like - I've never been there), but he's certainly captured a specific feeling (and maintains that feeling) for The Social Network. Zuckerberg and his cohorts are constantly on the edge of the "good ol' boy" network that has remained sustained throughout generations of Harvard graduates. While the Winklevoss' attend elite student functions, Zuckerberg is attending Caribbean night at the Jewish fraternity. The way Fincher portrays the two competing groups is a joy to watch.

"Engaging." That's what The Social Network is. Engaging. And smart. And funny. And light-hearted. For employing such an unlikeable and down-beat lead character and dramatic heft, The Social Network is a very, very fun movie. It's David Fincher's most accessible film since Panic Room, but without that film's directorial flourishes. The Social Network is straight-up, old-fashioned, cream of the crop fine storytelling, with great acting, mesmerizing direction, and smart writing. It's one of the best films of the year.

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