A universal story that's hard not to like
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 1, 2010
"The Social Network" is the kind of movie that by all rights shouldn't work. A verbose compendium of scenes of people talking to one another largely in college dorms, a Palo Alto ranch house or a law office conference room, "The Social Network" has another thing not going for it: It's centered on computers, the kiss of death of modern cinema that fatally smothers visual dynamism with dull close-ups of laptop screens and mouse clicks.
But when a talky movie's talk has been written by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing"), and those words have been animated by the visual brio of director David Fincher, what looks on paper like a static series of dead-end conversations comes to life as a vital, engaging, even urgent parable for our age. As the dramatized story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who invented the site in 2004 while a Harvard sophomore, "The Social Network" can't be taken as the literal record of events -- which ultimately involved Zuckerberg being sued by his partners and competitors. Clearly Sorkin and Fincher had higher aspirations for their film. With surgical precision, exhilarating insight and considerable storytelling flair, they make Zuckerberg both a metaphor and a lens through which to understand contemporary culture.
The rhythms and rhymes of "The Social Network" establish themselves in the film's small masterpiece of an opening scene, when Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara, the new Lisbeth Salander for all you "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" fans), trade barbs over beers in a Cambridge pub. Prickly, defensive, always five steps ahead, Zuckerberg is clearly peeved that his date pines for guys who row crew. He's brilliant but clueless, putting Erica down because she goes to Boston University but painfully aware that he can't get into Harvard's elite final clubs. He may be a programming genius, but he's an emotional idiot. When the conversation goes fatally south and the girl breaks up with him, he responds with what has become the mantra of his generation: "Is this real?"
What ensues is a narrative that hews closely to classic American tales of ambition, ingenuity, competition and betrayal; "The Social Network" has understandably been compared to "Citizen Kane" in its depiction of a man who changes society through bending an emergent technology to his will. But with its leitmotif of striving, resentment and cherchez la femme, the story also evokes Fitzgerald at his most longing and elegiac. A modern-day Jay Gatsby, the "refresh" button on his keyboard standing in for Daisy Buchanan's flashing green dock light, Zuckerberg -- or at least Sorkin's version of him -- embodies all those timeless contradictions and of-the-moment tics (the hoodie, those flip-flops) that make for a classic literary anti-hero.
Eisenberg delivers a deceivingly accomplished performance in the tricky role of Zuckerberg, whose recessive, withholding persona is completely at odds with the larger-than-life charisma such characters usually demand. Within an ensemble that includes Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg's erstwhile partner Eduardo Saverin, Josh Pence and Armie Hammer as the brothers who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea (and who, ahem, row crew) and Justin Timberlake as the Mephistophelian Sean Parker, Eisenberg manages to make his nerdy protagonist the most interesting guy in the room, even at his most awkward and antisocial.
And that, finally, is the most powerful paradox that propels "The Social Network," whose title is clearly intended for maximum irony. As Sorkin and Fincher masterfully bring viewers along on an infectiously giddy journey of discovery and invention, they also manage to infuse Zuckerberg's story with meaning beyond his own achievements, struggles and flaws.
Mark Zuckerberg may not be larger than life, but thanks to this swift, smart, beautifully crafted film, his on-screen avatar gets to impart truths that always will be.
Contains sexual content, drug and alcohol use and profanity.