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).

7 Responses to “The Social Network (2010)”

  1. “While The Social Network is a constantly surprising pleasure to watch, it’s unfortunately not much deeper than a Facebook friendship.”

    Ah, a very bold response to the film here. The reviews have been so effusively favorable, that one was thinking his or her mind was made up beforehand. Not you ro me, but perhaps many out there in the midst of the facebook phenomenon. I was startled hence to see the 4/5 review, but the proof will be in the pudding for me tomorrow night.

    Excellent writing here.

  2. I’m a big Sorkin fan and because of him and the performances, I like enough about it to justify the 4 of 5. I reasonable chance I could bump it up with future viewings. I know ciritics have swooned over it.

  3. Love that description of Eisenberg’s role. All his characters seem to display these traits to some extent. Whether I ultimately agree with your take on the film’s emotional temperature and lack of substance I just love the vividness of how you expressed it – the second to last paragraph really stood out for me.

  4. Eisenberg definitely picks it up several notches here. He’s great.

    I should at that after only one viewing, I’m open to the idea that I’ll find greater emotion or deeper meaning down the line, or that I’ll find something else about it to hang my hat on.

    I think I went in a little bit with the expectation (based on early buzz) that it was best movie of the year material and I kind of judged it with that in mind.

  5. While The Social Network is a constantly surprising pleasure to watch, it’s unfortunately not much deeper than a Facebook friendship.

    Ah yes, one of those wonderfully simple yet incisively appropriate Craig Kennedy comments. Love it because it’s very accurate.

    This is an impeccably crafted and marvelously entertaining film in every respect. In just simple technical terms, the writing, direction, editing, cinematography, scoring, casting, and especially the acting are all awards-worthy. I couldn’t imagine Sorkin and Fincher turning the creation of Facebook into an arresting thriller but that is exactly what they have done.

    However, like most Hollywood biopics (and that is exactly what this is), the film ultimately doesn’t have a lot to say beyond drawing a fine, dramatic caricature of its target. I really enjoyed watching it but other than the amazing technical feats accomplished, I don’t think it has a lot to keep me coming back for more.

    I agree with 4 stars. It is certainly very well-made and definitely worth every penny of the ticket price. Eisenberg and Timberlake have never been better and Garfield proves once again that he is a force to be reckoned with. Armie Hammer also does some impressive work as the twins (yes, Fincher can’t make any movie without some impressive feat of CGI-foo) and I see now why Rooney Mara is starring in Fincher’s newest. She can certainly hold her own in her two brief but memorable scenes.

  6. I was also impressed with Mara in her brief scenes. She’ll be great in Dragon Tattoo methinks.

    As I said above, I’m willing to wait and see if TSN grows in my mind. A lot of really smart people are over the moon about it, so maybe I just missed something.

    I think Sorkin/Fincher were GOING for something beyond an ordinary biography – I think they were aiming at something more universally penetrating – I just don’t think they quite got there.

  7. I think Sorkin/Fincher were GOING for something beyond an ordinary biography – I think they were aiming at something more universally penetrating – I just don’t think they quite got there. Agreed. Fincher supposedly described it as “Citizen Kane meets John Hughes” and if he really said that, it seems kinda accurate.

    Zuckerberg is certainly an interesting character (even if he’s more a creation of Sorkin’s writing than an impression of the real man here really doesn’t matter). The film paints a very dark and disturbing picture of modern business and it has fun illuminating all the class struggles that Zuckerberg seemed driven to overcome, but none of this seemed new or entirely illuminating to me. Over time I might find more to love here myself, but I feel like this is an All the President’s Men-type of picture: it’s a riveting, exciting behind-the-scenes look at a series of events that define an important moment in our popular culture. But I’m not sure it does more than catalog those events (granted, it’s a very well-made film regardless).

    I’ve read a number of reviews that analyze the Facebook/social media phenomenon and ascribe this to the film, simply because the subject is the birth of Facebook. But I didn’t learn anything about social networking or Facebook from this film that I wouldn’t have gotten from the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on either subject. It feels as though a number of prominent critics are trying awfully hard to add layers to the thematic depth of this film because New Media is something they simply don’t get.

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