Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Social Network review

Before we go any further, a small and probably obvious but still essential clarification...This review will deal with "The Social Network," which is a fictional movie based on some real incidents, as recounted in a popular non-fiction book by Ben Mezrich called "The Accidental Billionaires." I have read this book, and the movie does not diverge from its account of events significantly, but still, who besides the key players can really attest to its accuracy? So when I say things like "Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole," I don't mean the actual person Mark Zuckerberg, who created the actual site, Facebook. I've never met the guy. Maybe he's a non-stop delight and Mezrich's book/Sorkin's screenplay are full of lies, contemptible lies. I mean the character of "Mark Zuckerberg," played brilliantly in the film by actor Jesse Eisenberg. Ditto when I reference other characters in the movie who are based on real people. OK, let's move on.

"The Social Network" is not a movie about building a website. "The Accidental Billionaires" recounts, in detail, how Facebook came to be, the backstories of those who were instrumental in making it a reality and, finally, the disputes regarding ownership of the site. Many of these people and incidents find their way into the movie, but they are not its focus. Instead, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have made a film about loneliness and isolation. Mark Zuckerberg's inability to relate to others made Facebook possible, they seem to argue, but also made enjoying or benefiting from its success impossible. Multiple times in the film, we're told that "money doesn't matter to Mark," and there seems to be no reason to doubt his assertion. (He also tells us, flat out, that he once turned down an offer from Microsoft to purchase one of his sites, only to release it to the world for free.) But if he's not in it for the money, or his co-founders, or the trappings of success (like girls or parties or drugs)...what's in it for Mark? Is it possible to invent something that's beloved the world over and changes the way we see ourselves...for no good reason?

We learn two things quickly about Mark in the film. He's too focused on himself and his own inner monologue to carry on a proper conversation, and he has no idea how the things he says will be interpreted by other people around him.

When we first meet Mark, he's on a date with Erica (Rooney Mara), who sticks around for a surprising amount of time, considering that Mark talks non-stop, mostly about how he doesn't respect her or the school she attends (Boston University). When she finally does leave, he's surprised. Not only surprised, but hurt! Not only surprised at hurt, but angry! And it's this anger that spurns him to create, a snide little website that presents Harvard men with two photos of female students and asks them to choose the more attractive one. (He also blogs about how Erica is a bitch, how her family changed their last name, and how he finds the notion of comparing women to farm animals amusing.)

FaceMash brings Mark some amount of infamy on campus, which in turn attracts the attention of wonder twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), and their business partner, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella).

[A small aside here...the clearly, visibly Caucasian Max Minghella has been cast as a clearly, visibly Indian-American man for no apparent reason. Were no talented young actors of Indian descent available? Fincher is typically such a stickler for strict authenticity in his films. (It's said that, in the San Francisco Chronicle set from his movie "Zodiac," the desks were all outfitted with authentic '70s supplies and equipment, even though this would never be visible on camera). Surely, he must have cast Minghella in this role for a REASON, beyond just liking the guy's take on the character...but I'll be damned if I can puzzle that reason out. Personally, I thought it was distracting, and one of the film's few real missteps.]

The Winklevosses - privileged, attractive, confident - and Narendra have an idea for a website, and they need a talented programmer. The genius behind FaceMash seems like just the guy, so they sort of informally hire Mark to help him with their site. In his own inimitable, purposefully frustrating and distant way, he agrees. At around the same time, he comes up with his own idea for a social network called TheFacebook, which builds off of the Winklevosses concept while adding some elements of MySpace, Friendster and even FaceMash. Whether or not these two circumstances were directly related will form much of the conflict of the film.

More incidents from the founding of Facebook occur - Zuckerberg brings in his friend Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) to help fund his new project, he begins bringing in roommates and fellow coders to lend their talents, the site grows and comes to the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and other Silicon Valley types, etc. We start to wonder how someone who seems to lack an understanding of what "friendship" means can have such an intuitive understanding of its mechanics, and how these could be applied to the Web. Does Mark truly grok interpersonal relationships because he has spent so much time OUTSIDE them, studying their intricacies?

Many well-observed little moments all reinforce the central observation that Mark can't understand people, and that he resents them for it. His mannerisms, his body language, even his words seem to express the notion that "I don't like you, and that's your fault." We sense perhaps this is a defense mechanism gone horribly, horribly wrong. Mark feels incapable of truly "fitting in," so he has convinced himself that people are loathsome and stupid and not worth fitting in with anyway. But clearly, he's not entirely won over to misanthropy. A part of him still wishes he could be a part of something; he just doesn't know how, aside from building a website that everything wants to use. Something "cool."

Eisenberg's pretty magnificent here, ably suggesting Mark's awkwardness, his rapid-fire but clumsy speaking style, his arrogance tinged with insecurity, without going too far and turning the character into some kind of savant. It would have been easy to go "Rain Man" on Mark, present him as some kind of stunted genius, but Eisenberg keeps things level and balanced. His Zuckerberg is not mentally ill, or cartoonish or villainous. For all his apparent flaws, Eisenberg makes it hard to actively dislike Mark Zuckerberg. We're baffled by him at times, and pity him at others, but he remains a believable, three-dimensional human being in every scene.

Much of the credit for this also goes to Sorkin, who deftly anchors the film's narrative in not one but two simultaneous lawsuits. We see bits of Zuckerberg's deposition in the Winklevosses intellectual property suit, and moments from his deposition in Savarin's suit for part-ownership of Facebook. It's a clever device, not only because it helps to explicate and clarify the sometimes-complicated goings-on in the span of a fast-paced 2 hour film, but also because it gives us a flavor of Mark's experience of the world. In his mind, he's always facing off against a panel of hateful peers and disappointed elders. His whole life to this point has been one long deposition.

Fincher, who has made a career out of studying frustrated, isolated, claustrophobic characters, turns in possibly his most careful and subtle work to date. Gone is the showy provocateur of "Seven," the hyper-kinetic mindfuck artist behind "Fight Club" or "The Game" and even the detail-obsessed cinephile of "Zodiac." Instead, he's sort of turned this entire movie over to Mark himself, letting the character and his work speak for themselves. (Perhaps he's TOO subtle here? It took me a while before I even realized how frequently the movie cuts back and forth between shots of large groups of people and shots of Mark alone, even though the second sequence in the whole film is a montage cutting between a lonely dorm room and a bus full of drunk co-eds.)

Finally, I have to stop and praise the excellent score by Trent Reznor (who previously collaborated with Fincher on "Seven") and Atticus Ross. The film is graced by warm, piano-heavy, but vaguely sinister electronic music that beautifully offsets Zuckerberg's personal desperation, the frigid Boston setting and the cruel rivalries of the central characters. (It's oddly fitting for an examination of a fun, engaging site for friends created by a cold, calculating, largely humorless genius.) Interestingly, the music seems to clash with the Harvard setting of the film's first half, only to then compliment the San Francisco scenes towards the end. Is the implication that Mark truly belonged in Silicon Valley all along? Or that as his work on Facebook gains more ground, he becomes a bit more confident in his own skin, the drive to create a social network finally supplanting the drive to simply be social?

Though we all really know how this story turns out (Zuckerberg pays off his enemies to go away! Facebook gets really really popular! He's a billionaire now!), I'll still avoid "spoiling" the movie's last scene. Suffice it to say, it's beautiful and heartbreaking, and includes possibly the best closing song choice of any movie in recent memory. "The Social Network" overall is a movie that's more thought-provoking and interesting than emotional or wrenching...until that final scene. Then all bets are off, and Fincher decidedly goes for the gut. The result is about as close to perfection as movies get, and worth the price of admission alone.

Posted via email from Lon Harris