Sunday, October 3, 2010

Movie Review: "The Social Network"

Originally published in October 3 edition of the Source.

Ironically, the first thing I did upon walking out of the theater after screening "The Social Network" was check my Facebook.

It's almost a reflex. Since becoming one of the social networking site's 500 million users a few years back, it's become a part of my normal life. Whether through a computer or on my phone, I'm constantly viewing what my friends are up to or updating my status. There is hardly a person I communicate with regularly who is not on Facebook. Even my grandfather has a profile.

It's a rare thing to live through a communication revolution like this. Through social networking sites, we have the ability to reconnect with old schoolmates, keep up with our coworkers and learn every little thing about people we barely know in real life.

And if we're to believe "The Social Network," all it cost Facebook's creator to design this online intimacy was every close relationship he had.David Fincher's "The Social Network" is not really about Facebook, even though its creation drives the plot. Digging deeper, Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin examine a culture in which billions can be made by college students with only an idea and the life of a genius for whom technological revolution was a conduit for revenge.

The film opens with Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, "Zombieland") on a date with Erica (Rooney Mara). In just five short minutes, a cordial date unravels as Mark parades his condescension, impatience and unchecked ambition, ending with Erica delivering a wickedly perfect break up that sets the stage for everything that follows. It's a breathtaking dialogue sequence that spells out everything we need to know about this character and Sorkin's script dares the audience to keep up.

Angry and rejected, Mark returns to his dorm for some drunken blogging. With the help of his roommates, he gets the idea to hack into Harvard's various online photo archives to create a website where users can rate student attractiveness. The site attracts so many hits in such a short time that it crashes Harvard's network. When he's called in front of Harvard administration, Mark simply requests recognition for revealing the network's vulnerabilities.

The incident makes Mark a pariah among the school's females but a hit among the computer elite. Twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) enlist Mark's help in setting up a Harvard-only online dating site. At the same time, Mark and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Patrick Garfield) are busy setting up a Harvard social networking site called TheFacebook in which users can connect to their friends' profiles and trade information. It's a business venture that ultimately attracts the attention of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).

The fact that the narrative is filtered through litigation between Zuckerberg and his former friends should tell you that Facebook's start was not without a few bumps. The Winklevosses, not without reason, suspect that Mark has appropriated their idea and we quickly learn that things will not end well for Mark and Eduardo's friendship either.

I first read about Facebook's tumultuous behind-the-scenes drama in a magazine article a few years back. While I found the subject fascinating, I never pictured it as a film. It was a story about computer programming, shady business contracts and legal action - not the most cinematically gripping stuff.

But Sorkin, famous for turning Beltway politics into weekly drama on "The West Wing," finds a human element in presenting Zuckerberg as a socially clueless, wounded and ambitious young man who doesn't seem to get the girls or the attention of the popular clubs. His solution: be better, be cooler and attract more attention ... and then use that attention to shut down everyone who he feels has slighted him. Portrayed with fierce brilliance and aloofness by Eisenberg, however, Zuckerberg doesn't come across as being a true jerk - just an overly prideful young man who doesn't fit in and then lashes out when his feelings get hurt. He's like an unfunny version of "The Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon Cooper.

It's a tough role and Eisenberg, best known for his comedic work, tackles it ably. We don't learn much about Zuckerberg except that he's brilliant and driven - and, perhaps, that's all there is to him. When he gets the idea for Facebook, it consumes him. He moves out to California and dedicates himself to the site. But no matter how popular the site becomes, he's always wrestling with insecurity over the friend picked for the club that neglected him, the slight from other students or the girl who just wasn't impressed with how smart he was. He doesn't know how to navigate social situations and gets irritated when others aren't on the same page as him. Eisenberg perfectly captures the condescending character of a man who sees himself as intellectually superior to everyone in the room, yet he also finds a few quiet moments to showcase Mark as a kid out of his element, afraid at how fast his dream is coming true and not sure how to emotionally react.

Sorkin is the rare writer to make legal and computer jargon crackle off the screen. Like on "The West Wing," his dialogue flies out of characters' mouths, daring the audience to keep up. The writing is whip-smart, gripping and surprisingly funny. Fincher's technique of cutting back and forth in the narrative between depositions and the actual event, coupled with Trent Reznor's propulsive score, give it a momentum that rivets attention to the screen and makes two hours pass in an instant. It's refreshing to see a film that respects audience intelligence enough to expect them to keep up and pay attention.Fincher's ensemble is superb, particularly Garfield. As the film's victim, a level-headed economics student who'd rather see Facebook slowly gain a profit rather than peak early, he presents Saverin well as a business-savvy young kid who wants to proceed cautiously and is ultimately betrayed for his wisdom. Timberlake is perfectly cast as Parker, the rock star of the Internet world, a cocky and brash rebel who talks a big game despite being fueled by paranoia and not having a buck to his name.

Fincher, a visual maestro in "Fight Club" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," has to rein in his tricks here. But still, no one shoots darkness on digital better than him and his creation of life on Harvard has a wonderfully edgy, dark tinge to it, taking place in a world where cultural revolution occurs amidst 3 a.m. frat parties and drunken bouts of brilliance. The director, who made three decades of investigative work intriguing in "Zodiac," ensures that despite the legal mumbo jumbo and massive tech talk the audience never loses site of the character drama at play or becomes lost in a maze of dialogue.

The film is peppered with insights that may require a second viewing. It's amusing and a bit sobering to think that the online social network community started by appealing to our attraction to exclusivity and desire meet the opposite sex. There's so much to say about the dangers of online business and intellectual property; the film should be required viewing for anyone thinking of starting a website. But none of this would work without a human story propelling it.

And in "The Social Network," that story is how a young man changed the way we communicate and connect with the people we love, even though it meant his own friends list had no one else on it.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.