Monday, October 4, 2010

In Theaters: "The Social Network"

David Fincher’s The Social Network is a business procedural played with the intensity of a thriller and the ingenuity of a screwball comedy. It marks a bit of a departure for the filmmaker, whose pictures tend to lean towards darker themes and visual pyrotechnics; here, handling a chatty screenplay by Aaron Sorkin that consists primarily of people in rooms talking, he curbs his occasional excesses and cooks up his most satisfying film to date. Though mining (with some significant departures from the official record) the origin story of Facebook, a presumably of-the-moment phenomenon, Fincher and Sorkin have somehow made a movie that is about more than its ostensible subject. It is a tale of burgeoning corporate intrigue, yes, but that’s window dressing; it examines, at least implicitly, the cultural moment that precipitates the explosion of a site which aims specifically to make the social experience a virtual construct, but that’s spice. Where the film strikes oil is in its understanding of the kind of guy who would want to create that experience.

His name is Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and the opening scene that introduces him is a whiz-bang Sorkin special—a flurry of rat-tat-tat dialogue and cranked-up conversation in which characters talk non-stop while revealing themselves only accidentally. Zuckerberg, a smug Harvard sophomore obsessed with the university social hierarchy that he cannot penetrate, is out with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara); he clearly sees himself as smarter than her (she attends lowly Boston University), but she’s so adroit at conducting two exchanges at once that before he realizes it, she’s broken up with him. Depressed and half-drunk, he goes back to his dorm, blogs some hurtful things about her, and concocts a website called “facemash” that pulls pictures from campus sites and lets students rank the women against each other. Fincher cranks through this embryonic sequence with the finesse and energy of an action scene—particularly as he intercuts the rich and powerful “club” kids living the life Mark longs for, the velvety seductiveness of the haves in sharp contrast to the laptop tappings of the have-nots.

The program crashes Harvard’s server and gets him called on the university carpet, but it also catches the attention of Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) and twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer). The trio approaches Mark with an idea for a new networking site—“The Harvard Connection,” a school-wide apparatus for profiles, pictures, and so on. Mark jumps in, but decides almost immediately that he can do this thing better than they can; he builds on the concept, hits up his best friend—and occasional conscience—Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for a grand or so in start-up funds, blows off Narenda and the Winklevosses, and launches his version,“the facebook.” It’s an immediate sensation, adding users and schools and continents, every success adding to the frustration of the Winklevoss brothers, who maintain that Zuckerberg ripped them off. “I didn’t use a line of their code,” he protests to Eduardo, who supports his friend, financially and morally, until he’s no longer of use to Mark, and gets cut off too. Much of that has to do with the presence of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the well-connected but semi-flaky Internet entrepreneur who silkily floats into their partnership (in slow-motion, no less) and all but explodes it.

The complex saga is told in a dizzying series of interlocking depositions (“I’m currently in the middle of two lawsuits,” Mark explains, somewhat impatiently), which sounds like the dullest imaginable framework for a narrative. But the picture gets a considerable kick from Sorkin’s distinctive conversational rhythms and considerable skills as a wordsmith. The Social Network is a whirlwind of talk—invigorating, intelligent, fast-paced dialogue, from the throwaway lines (“We’re sitting in chairs”) to the pointed trailer money shots (“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook”) to the occasional loquacious show-stopper. Every Sorkin script has one (Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth” bit in A Few Good Men is the obvious example, though Baldwin’s “I am God” speech in Malice is nearly as quotable); here, it comes when the Winklevosses’ lawyer asks Mark, “Do I have your full attention?,” unleashing a perfect storm of Sorkinian attitude, snark, and barely-contained impatience (“You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?”).

Filming a Sorkin script that’s about anything more than the words is a tricky business; even a director as skilled as Mike Nichols (in Charlie Wilson’s War) didn’t end up doing much more than Sorkin’s television collaborators—i.e., pointing the camera while people said good lines, sometimes while walking. David Fincher isn’t exactly the first filmmaker you’d think to pair with him, but the shotgun marriage is unexpectedly ideal, with Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s moody autumnal imagery adding depth and dimension to the narrative. (The tense ambient score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doesn’t hurt either.) Fincher is also ideally suited to the material by his fascination with process, a quality that made 2007’s brilliant Zodiac so overwhelming. As a former music video director, he also knows how to convey the intoxication of impending wealth, as in the scene where Parker takes Zuckerberg to a hip, sexy nightclub and talks a very, very good game.

Performances are universally strong—Garfield (the next Spiderman) is immensely likable, Hammer is startlingly solid, and Timberlake handily sells his multi-layered portrait of the guy who knows all the angles but can’t quite hide his own rough edges. But Eisenberg’s is the thrilling breakthrough performance; as good as he’s been in his previous turns as shy, brainy would-be intellectuals in projects like Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale, this is a darker and more complicated piece of work. His performance here is somehow both showy (particularly those 100 mile-per-hour line readings) and defly underplayed—you get the sense, from before the film even begins, that he’s already tired of always being the smartest guy in the room.

When The Social Network was announced, it seemed such an oddball project that snickers and jeers were the prevailing response (wonder if the critics will “like” it, ho ho). But from the unveiling of its mesmerizing trailer a few months back, it was clear that this wasn’t just “the Facebook movie,” any more than Citizen Kane was a film about newspapers. The medium is not the message; as in Welles’s classic, the takeaway appears to be that, no matter the amount of media he controls or the wealth he accumulates, if a man’s soul is broken, well, that’s that. Nowhere is that parallelism more clear than in Fincher’s perfect closing images, in which Zuckerberg’s own Rosebud is but a keystroke away, yet as unattainable as ever.

"The Social Network" is now playing in wide release.

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