THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE SOCIAL NETWORK"
Jesse Eisenberg invents Facebook - and accepts a lot of friend requests - in The Social Network.
The Social Network is a major event. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, "The West Wing") have teamed up to adapt Ben Mezrich's bestseller "The Accidental Billionaires," which told the story of the creation of Facebook, the popular website that many of us are addicted to. For this reason, there's been a lot of anticipation for the film in many quarters. I'd have to rank this as one of my personal most-anticipated movies of 2010, so it gives me great pleasure to report that it is one of the best pictures of the year.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, a social misfit who wishes he could join the cool fraternities and hang with the popular, athletic members of the rowing team. One drunken evening, he creates a website that allows users to vote on the hotness of female coeds. The site earns him the enmity of Harvard's women, but also the attention of twins/star athletes Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), who are impressed enough by Zuckerberg's work that they want him to design a Harvard-based dating website they've had the idea for. He avoids work on the project, instead spinning the seed of their concept into one of his own, something much bigger and more ambitious: a social networking site with the ability to create one's own clique by choosing "friends."
Zuckerberg hits up his pal Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for start-up money and installs him as CFO of "the Facebook." It becomes a campus sensation immediately, so the two start to expand it to other schools. They are then hooked up with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who lost his wealth after being sued by the record companies but sees being a Facebook consultant as a chance to get back in the game. Broke though he may be, Parker hasn't lost his flash, or his ego; he encourages Zuckerberg to push Saverin out of the picture. This leads to a lawsuit, the deposition of which is used as a framing device in the movie. The Winklevoss twins also sue Zuckerberg once it becomes clear that he's making a lot of money on what originated as their idea.
The Zuckerberg we see in The Social Network is awkward in interpersonal relations, but he's not necessarily a complete jerk. I obviously can't say what the man is like in real life, but here he's portrayed as a guy whose insecurities cause him to easily fall under the spell of people like Sean Parker, who are cool and popular and outwardly impressive. Parker offers him entry into a world of sex and drugs. Zuckerberg doesn't really partake of those things much in the movie, but he definitely seems to enjoy being in proximity to the party. The on-screen Zuckerberg has jealousies that get touched off once he becomes a big deal, yet he's more passive-aggressive than actively malicious. Who knows, maybe that's worse. Deciding for yourself is one of the film's most engrossing pleasures.
The Social Network works on two levels. For starters, it's a great movie about Facebook. If, like me, you're an avid user of the site, this will serve as a thoroughly compelling depiction of how it was created and how certain crucial elements, such as "relationship status" and exclusivity to one's profile, came from bursts of inspiration (or theft, depending on your point of view). While obviously fun on the surface, Facebook has revolutionized the way we communicate with each other. Admit it - you've got Facebook friends from high school or college who you'd never get in contact with via phone or letter, right? Fincher and Sorkin have carefully structured the film to show you how a pet project designed for amusement ended up being one of the biggest online revelations in the relatively short history of the internet.
The movie also works on a second level: as great story not about Facebook. Even if you've never logged on to the website, you can still get caught up in the way The Social Network looks at issues of friendship, rivalry, inspiration, and the cutthroat nature of business. It offers up some provocative questions about what constitutes ownership. Who is really responsible for a product, the person who formulates the original concept, or the person who develops it into what it ultimately becomes? As Zuckerberg says at one point, "If somebody builds a really nice chair, it doesn't mean he owes money to the first person ever to build a chair." I particularly like how the deposition scenes are woven throughout the story, as they offer a provocative back-and-forth debate on these questions. The filmmakers have melded them into a fascinating drama that manages to be techie authentic without ever feeling dull or confusing.
Every single performance is superb, with the cast members delivering uniformly Oscar-worthy work. Jesse Eisenberg has perhaps the trickiest role, as he has to make Zuckerberg obnoxiously brash without getting to the point of completely putting off the audience. He accomplishes that magnificently, capturing the kind of anti-social eccentricity that often defines the super-intelligent. Andrew Garfield (soon to be the new Spider-Man) is also outstanding. His character is the conscience of the film, as well as our guide into the chaotic orbit of Mark Zuckerberg. The actor plays Eduardo Saverin as measured and reasoned, until he gets screwed, at which point ferocity emerges seemingly from out of nowhere. He's great. And the highest compliment I can pay to Justin Timberlake is to say he's so good that I forgot I was watching Justin Timberlake.
Let me devote a separate space to Armie Hammer, who plays the Winklevoss twins. That's right - one guy plays both characters. It is a testament not just to the movie's invisible special effects but also to the actor's skill that I assumed a real set of twins had been cast. It wasn't until reading the credits that I discovered one man was Cameron and Tyler. He gives them slightly different personalities that allow you to always tell them apart.
I know a lot of people are already talking about how The Social Network "defines" a decade or an era. That talk is kind of pointless. Facebook has 500 million users, so it's a part of lives all across the globe - which is amazing considering that it's inherently frivolous. But the film isn't necessarily using Facebook to make any decade-defining statements; if it were, I don't think it would be nearly as powerful as it is. Trying to do that sort of thing usually results in pretentiousness, a quality that certainly does not apply here. The Social Network is fun, smart, entertaining, and fascinating. Fincher and Sorkin are just showing how a simple idea emerged into a cultural phenomenon, and how that simple idea had a lot of complexity underneath it. As the old saying goes, nothing good comes easy. Sometimes it even comes with lawsuits.
( out of four)
The Social Network is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language. The running time is 2 hours.