Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
If director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin set out to make a smart, funny, engaging and wholly entertaining movie around the founding of one of the more important sociological and technological developments of the last decade, they’ve hit a home run with The Social Network. It’s a dazzling display of writing and a razor-sharp set of performances lovingly buffed by Fincher to a smooth, lustrous and appropriately techno sheen. On the other hand, if they wanted something more than that – if they wanted a film to capture a generation and an era – they’ve fallen a bit short. While The Social Network is a constantly surprising pleasure to watch, it’s unfortunately not much deeper than a Facebook friendship.
Jesse Eisenberg is the brilliant yet arrogant social misfit Mark Zuckerberg who, along with Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), combined the opposing forces of exclusivity and ubiquity into a cutting edge hook-up service for the Ivy League that was quickly transformed into a worldwide, multi-billion dollar phenomenon. Using the timeless launching point of boys who just want to connect with girls, Sorkin’s script takes a multi-threaded approach to the inevitable drama, jumping back and forth in time between the rocket ship rise of Facebook, the different lawsuits that would ultimately spring up as soon as money became involved, and ultimately the sad decline of a friendship. In the end, everyone gets rich, but no one seems very happy about it.
As Zuckerberg, Eisenberg is a marvel of compact, internalized energy; one of those people whose brains are constantly several steps beyond their mile-a-minute mouths and their mouths are, in turn, several steps beyond everyone else in the conversation. Whatever his brain thinks, his mouth speaks and there’s no filter between the two. He’s also a contradictory mix of confidence and insecurity; one of those people who knows he’s special, but who also fears deep down that no one else thinks so. Incapable of genuinely impressing anyone, he pretends not to try.
The danger in such a character is that he isn’t very likable nor especially interesting as a human being. Part of the genius of Sorkin’s script however is that he frequently plays this unlikable social incompetent against the Winklevoss brothers (Armie Hammer in both roles), a pair of overprivileged jock frat boys who accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their idea and who are even less likable. By comparison, it’s much easier to pull for the nerd.
Garfield’s Eduardo meanwhile counterpoints the intensity of Zuckerberg. He’s softer, more handsome and more nuanced than his best friend. He’s not the same kind of genius, but he’s still smart and has a firmer grasp on the big picture. Plus he’s got the money to back up the brains. Garfield combines the nervous excitement of success with a quiet sensitivity and a growing fear that he’s a lesser player in the whole scenario.
The other key performance in The Social Network is Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the Napster creator who became involved in Facebook as it was just starting to get the attention of the moneymen in Palo Alto. If you haven’t made the leap already, it’s time to take Timberlake seriously as an actor. He’s fantastic as the fast-talking, charming and slightly devious character who manages to pull Zuckerberg into his orbit by sheer force of personality. What Timberlake brings to the screen here is a lifetime removed from The Mickey Mouse Club and ‘N Sync.
Though all three characters are vividly drawn and well-acted, there’s something missing in the connection between Zuckerberg and Saverin. As someone points out to him near the film’s beginning, Zuckerberg’s problem isn’t that he’s a nerd, it’s that he’s kind of a jerk. That’s fine when he’s butting heads with the Winklevoss brothers, but it’s not very clear what nice-guy Saverin sees in him. They’re supposedly best friends, but their relationship is never really fleshed out and it’s difficult to feel the heartbreak you’re supposed to over the foundering of their relationship. As a result, the story is missing a crucial emotional component – a component that would’ve helped elevate the film toward greatness.
Instead of emotion, the dynamism of The Social Network rests almost entirely on Sorkin’s mastery of dialogue and the wonderful cast’s ability to play the unique ping-pong rhythms just right. For Sorkin, actions don’t speak louder than words, words are actions. An intense conversation carries the near visceral thrill of a car chase and, without ever breaking a sweat, The Social Network dances and sparks like a downed power line. It’s a symphony of words, an intricately and elegantly crafted work of verbal origami. Unfortunately, like a carefully folded paper butterfly, it’s more decorative than resonant. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t really mean anything in the end. There’s no emotional core nor any big profound ideas to hang on to.
Fincher’s best movies use his technical brilliance to capture the essence of an age. Zodiac was a cold, hard piece of work, but it was great because it spoke to a time when the youthful optimism of the 1960s faded into the cynical, hopeless fog of the 1970s. The Fight Club was glib, but it perfectly reflected the emasculating and empty materialism of the 1990s. The Social Network seems to have all the elements that should define the 2000s, but it’s missing the heart to bring it to life. It’s almost as if screenwriter Sorkin understands this generation intellectually, but he doesn’t feel it emotionally. The resulting film hits all the technical marks and it furiously entertains along the way, but ultimately it’s missing a soul. In that way, it’s a little like its main character.
The Social Network. USA 2010. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin from the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. Cinematography by Jeff Cronenwith. Original music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Edited by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer, Josh Pence, Max Minghella and Brenda Song. 2 hours. MPAA rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language. 4 stars (out of 5).
Filed under: Review
Tags: Aaron Sorkin, Andrew Garfield, Angus Wall, Armie Hammer, Atticus Ross, Ben Mezrich, Brenda Song, David Fincher, Jeff Cronenweth, Jesse Eisenberg, Josh Pence, Justin Timberlake, Kirk Baxter, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, The Social Network, Trent Reznor