Friday, October 08, 2010

'Social Network' is a brilliant film

Movies can have the ability to act like time capsules of a specific time and place. I can watch “All the President’s Men” and have a window on the frustration and uncertainty of the 1970s or watch “Wall Street” and get a peek at the yuppie era at its pinnacle. “The Social Network” may well be cut from the same cloth. Twenty years from now people born today may look at it and go, “Oh, that's what it was like.”

Some will be quick to dismiss this as the Facebook movie, but they'd be wrong to do so. This isn't some movie of the week chronicling the creation of one the Internet's most popular and successful social networking sites. Oh, you get that back story, but you also get an incisive character study of a very particular type: the smartest guy in the room who is too smart for his own good.

There is substantial talent behind this film. The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the TV series “The West Wing” and movies like “A Few Good Men,” “The American President” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Sorkin, a sharp, observant, witty writer who populates the script with choice lines, treats this material with same amount of depth and substance as his work dealing in politics.

The director is David Fincher, whose resume includes such explorations into the darker side of humanity as “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac.” There may not seem to be anything ominous about the creation of Facebook, but Fincher's direction adds a certain menacing undertone as the popularity of Facebook spreads and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg gains power.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Zuckerberg, the Harvard undergrad who was the creative force behind Facebook. The film is structured as a series of flashbacks told from two intertwined depositions for lawsuit trials. One involves Zuckerberg's co-founder (Andrew Garfield) being pushed out of the company and the other a set of twins (remarkably and seamlessly both played by Armie Hammer) who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea for what would become Facebook.

Eisenberg has played his share of awkward motor-mouthed nerds in movies like “Zombieland” and “Adventureland.” He has mastered the likable nebbish. It is remarkable that Woody Allen hasn't cast him in one of his films yet. But while his work in “The Social Network” is a variation of that persona, there's something more unsettling about Zuckerberg.

As portrayed in the film, he is a coldly intelligent elitist, who talks fast, but not nearly as fast as he is thinking. In nearly every shot of Eisenberg you can sense that his mind is constantly going and that he can't be bothered to slow down to explain himself to lesser mortals.

In the nearly 10-minute opening scene, Zuckerberg's condescending conversation with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) leads to him being dumped. The film contends it was this rejection that fueled the creation of Facebook.

The unexpected wild card of the film is pop star-turned-actor Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker. Parker's Internet phenomenon blew up in his face, so, at least according to the film, the minute he heard about “thefacebook” he
immediately set out to weasel his way into a piece of the action.

Timberlake doesn't make his first appearance until late into the film, but he ups the ante. What may seem like stunt casting on paper is anything but. This is a real, full performance. Timberlake oozes confidence, but there's a calculating underlying sinisterness to his charm as he manipulates Zuckerberg against his co-founder. It is a strong performance that matches Eisenberg's exceptional work.

With “The Social Network,” Fincher and Sorkin dare to make a film where the protagonist isn't likable, yet in spite of Zuckerberg's unpleasant attributes, Eisenberg doesn't make him an entirely unsympathetic character.

Late in the film as dirty deals begin to unfold, there's a moment where Eisenberg allows for an unspoken moment of regret that is palpable. The film's final moments show a man worth billions of dollars, but with no friends. This is no spoiler because it is how the film shows this moment that is poetically perfect.

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