01 October 2010

The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Joseph Mazzello are shown in a scene from "The Social Network."
I have heard people discuss "The Social Network," laughing it off as "the Facebook movie." But here's the thing: It isn't really about Facebook.

Directed by David Fincher and written for the screen by Aaron Sorkin (based on the 2009 book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich), "The Social Network" tells a classic American story of capitalism and greed, friendship and betrayal, fueled by envy and lost innocence, presenting Facebook co-founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg as Charles Foster Kane for the new millennium. He might even have a Rosebud or two of his own.

The great irony of the film is that Facebook, a sprawling online community of 500 million users based on acquiring "friends" and sharing, in some cases, the most minute details of your personal life with these people, is created from the ashes of bitterness and resentment, by a young man whose only true friend later sues him for millions.

Jesse Eisenberg, who has cultivated a socially awkward persona in "Adventureland," "Zombieland" and even some movies without "land" in their titles, takes it to a far deeper level here. As Eisenberg portrays him, Zuckerberg is a genius, a brilliant computer programmer, always the smartest guy in the room—and he knows it. And whether through arrogance or a lack of social skills, he makes sure everyone around him knows it, too.

Despite being the central character, Zuckerberg remains a mystery throughout. Is his heart broken when his girlfriend, Erica (a feisty Rooney Mara, who will play the iconic Lisbeth Salander in Fincher's next film, the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), breaks up with him in the opening scene? Or does he see it as losing a status symbol, the same way he views his lack of an invitation to join one of Harvard University's prestigious, exclusive final clubs?

Did he ever intend to write the programming for Harvard Connection, the social-networking website proposed by the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), or was running with the idea and creating his own website always his plan? When the Winklevosses' attorney sends a cease-and-desist letter, Zuckerberg argues that a carpenter who builds a chair does not owe money to everyone who built a chair before him. "They came to me with an idea. I came up with a better one." End of story, as far as he's concerned.

Does he resent his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the man who would be Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Facebook co-founder/former CFO, because of his selection for a final club, or are Zuckerberg's questionable business decisions influenced by new friend Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the co-founder of the music-sharing website Napster? Or is it pure, simple greed?

The presentation of Zuckerberg undoubtedly was influenced by his lack cooperation with both Mezrich for his book and the filmmakers. But it makes for a more compelling story. Would "Citizen Kane" hold the same appeal if the title character explained his actions every step of the way?

It's easy to see the film's depiction of Zuckerberg as negative. (And though Zuckerberg has dismissed the movie as fiction and has said he will not see it, he must be concerned about what it will do to his public image. How else to explain the timing of last week's $100 million donation to a Newark, N.J., school district?) There is much ambiguity, though, if you look for it, and therein lies much of the film's greatness. Instead of having everything spelled out and wrapped up nice and neat, we are left to wonder and interpret.

Fincher, still known primarily as a visual stylist, and Sorkin, whose signature scene essentially consists of people in a room talking to each other, seem like an odd pairing. But it turns out to be a perfect marriage, Sorkin's smart dialogue crackling and Fincher heightening the drama, crafting something of a thriller with dark, foreboding lighting and a powerful forward momentum due in large part to editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who worked with Fincher on "Zodiac" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and an eerie, electronic musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Though they could not be more different in terms of story, "Fight Club" is "The Social Network's" closest cousin in Fincher's filmography. Both are very much of the present, culturally defining films of their time yet with themes that do not fade as the years pass.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language. 120 minutes.)

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