Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review of The Social Network

Who's up for another review of "The Social Network"? Huh? Eh? Alright, then. How 'bout if I sweeten the pot with a little Rooney Mara? And Kate Mara?

(This review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. Thanks, Trina.)

The Social Network, the story behind the creation of Facebook, has been a topic of discussion since its release last month. Speculation swirls about its accuracy and the less than flattering portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the site's 26-year-old co-founder and CEO. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the film's writer, Aaron Sorkin, described The Social Network as a painting. Everyone, he says, will have a different interpretation. He's right. Even Facebook's slighted co-founder Eduardo Saverin sees the movie an ode to entrepreneurship.

Here's my take: The Social Network tells the story behind a cultural force, and does it well—just like how Saturday Night Fever examined the denizens of the disco or how Wall Street glamorized the movers and shakers behind the mid-1980s' money boom. Sorkin and director David Fincher also detail (with relish) unbridled ambition and its consequences, a beloved story arc. Yes, The Social Network is massively entertaining. But it unveils truths about how we live now. Those looking for accuracy are missing a movie that introduces a new version of the American dream.

It is 2003 and Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg knows that hard work and graduating from a good college just won't cut it. In the opening scene, he complains about how money and status get you places—in his case, one of Harvard's exclusive clubs. He must differentiate himself from the pack of academic all-stars. His girlfriend (Rooney Mara), tired of hearing the ramblings of an obnoxious, self-absorbed jerk, dumps him at the bar.

After writing a scathing blog post on his ex and downing some beers, Zuckerberg begins his quest for greatness. He hacks into the dorms' Web sites, pulls a slue of female student photos, and constructs a Web site where visitors can vote on which of the two students presented is more attractive. Facemash attracts thousands of hits, nearly causing Harvard's network to crash. The administration puts Zuckerberg on academic probation for six months. Never lacking in self-confidence, Zuckerberg demands his accusers recognize his ability to spot flaws in Harvard's computer system.

Twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), the epitome of the refined, steel-jawed Ivy League caricature—they're on the crew team for crissakes—spot Mark's potential. The brothers want him to design a Harvard-related social networking site. Zuckerberg agrees, but soon turns his attention to what will become Facebook. He ignores the Winklevosses' e-mails and partners with best friend Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who puts up the seed money. As Facebook gains popularity on campuses in the United States and Europe, the gentlemanly Winklevosses finally turn litigious. Napster wunderkind Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a steady performance) enters the picture. Then things get interesting.

Sorkin (A Few Good Men) and Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) keep the story humming, a miracle considering their tendency toward theatrics. They make it easy and rewarding to read between the lines. We know immediately that Zuckerberg's relationship with Saverin, an economics major, is doomed. Saverin is being considered for one of Harvard's exclusive clubs, which angers Zuckerberg. "It probably was for diversity" is Mark's response to the news. Opposing forces define their friendship. Saverin is handsome, destined for success, and flush with cash, the very qualities Zuckerberg craves. But Saverin's polished wardrobe and traditional business sense make him the enemy. Everything about Mark, from his shabby wardrobe to his refusal to advertise on Facebook, radiates a stubborn integrity. When Parker enters the picture, talking about venture capitalists and holding out beyond the first round of offers ("You know what's cool? A billion dollars."), Zuckerberg has found a kindred spirit. Saverin, pounding the pavement like a young Willy Loman, is a well-educated relic.

For all of Zuckerberg's blathering, he's right: Attending Harvard doesn't guarantee anything. Old money values have depreciated, which the Winklevosses discover after complaining about Zuckerberg's "theft" of their idea to the bored Harvard president. Create a new product, they're told. That's what everyone is doing in lieu of real work. In any other movie, the Winklevosses would have been the heroes. Here they're a step behind, while the petulant, socially inept computer whiz triumphs. This extends to the social arena. I don’t recall one scene featuring the Winklevosses with a woman. Meanwhile the Facebook guys are partying and getting it on with hotties in bathroom stalls.

Given his reputation for portraying sensitive, confused young men (Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale) Eisenberg's performance is a marvel. The actor never isolates us from Zuckerberg; we want to understand him. He's a jerk not out of malice, but out of impatience. The fact that he has no sense of diplomacy or decorum doesn't help. He's right, and it's not his fault if you can't keep up. (Just ask the Winklevosses, whose idea was elitist and lame.) Eisenberg delivers his lines in a strident, authoritative cadence that never crosses into bad guy territory. We sense that he's tried so hard to be right, to be ahead of the game, that he's now stuck in this aggressive and gloomy persona. Eisenberg anchors the movie, and Garfield is terrific as a young man whose friendship with Zuckerberg leads to his downfall.

Even though it has united millions, the story behind Facebook's creation is acrimonious. (At least the cinematic version is. Zuckerberg has said the movie gets "a lot of stuff wrong and random details right.") Fincher and Sorkin go too far in conveying the frayed emotions involved, especially an ending that plays like Citizen Kane for the modern friendless. But it doesn't take away from the movie's power. We already know that how we communicate has changed forever. The Social Network reveals that the model for success in America—and how associations are forged—has also changed. Mark Zuckerberg has rebelled his way into the new conformity. [PG-13]

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