We are entering a new plastic age of cinema. Not only are amusement park rides becoming full-fledged franchises (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean, the soon-to-be remade Haunted Mansion), Battleship and Monopoly movies loom on the horizon. It is clear that brand reigns supreme in new Hollywood, meaning it is only a matter of time before the epic Clorox and Miracle Whip franchises duke it out on the big screen. The Social Network is a movie based on a website. A website. I can’t stress that enough. But beyond its obvious marketing tie-ins and greedy capitalization on a highly addictive, popular yet soulless service, The Social Network strives to do the impossible: To be a quality film with substance and heart in spite of its mediocre subject matter.
The Social Network is a labor of love from writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). Deeply fascinating, complicated and flawed, this film is the result of a calculated and concerted effort from a very skillful wordsmith. Even acclaimed director David Fincher’s normally assertive visual style is shockingly muted in this picture, serving as the vessel for Sorkin’s staggering humor and wit. I would be remiss not to mention that this screenplay contains some of Sorkin’s most brilliant comic dialog, purveyed in a quieter and more lambent form than his trademark snark and walk-and-talks. Given the humble beginnings of our hero, morally ambiguous Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and the hero’s relatively exponential leaps to success, there is something wonderful about watching Sorkin shift from small-stakes social networking to make-or-break business deals on a casual basis, the intensity of Zuckerberg’s focus being his only constant. Much like his characterization of Zuckerberg, Sorkin seems unconcerned with the things that average people admire, focusing his efforts on wholly original, unique and creative goals. After all, his script reads like a theatrical play, and how often can a screenwriter claim that?
There’s something Shakespearean and tragic about The Social Network, especially since it records a history yet unfinished. (It might be nice to see an aged Sorkin revisit Zuckerberg in his autumn years for Henry the IV, Part 2.) The basic thrust of the narrative takes place during Zuckerberg’s time at Harvard. He wishes to be admired by the public but on his own terms. After a nasty (yet smoothly written) break-up scene, Zuckerberg lashes out at the female university community on the internet- and thus, The Facebook is born. Zuckerberg’s ambition and myopic (read: robotic) focus on personal gain alienate him from the people that helped him achieve his first few steps toward stardom. The story intercuts between Zuckerberg’s rise to power and the legal proceedings that bookend his social life. Like a true tragic figure, Zuckerberg is left to wallow in the wake of his own creation, not as its king, but with the same dependent loneliness of the average person.
Hopping from scene to scene is a real treat as each story event provides palpable drama and a backdrop for hilarious, taut dialog. The only flaws stem from the natural inadequacy of the film’s story structure. How can Sorkin sculpt a proper dramatic ending for a young and still-living public figure? He attempts something subtle and dramatic on his audience in the end, but after a long and emotional narrative, the subtlety may be lost on a crowd expecting more bang for their buck. Sex and hedonism abound in this tale of self-deprecation, indulgence and promiscuity, but don’t be mistaken: this is a thinking man’s frat party. Few characters, including the villains, are allotted few enough traits as to be flat or one-note, save for one deceivingly shallow girlfriend who makes a bizarrely cornball switch from sanity to pyromania in the second half. My personal favorites were the Winklevoss twins, two preppy yet believable douchebags who incite the fire for Facebook in Zuckerberg’s belly only to double over in agony when they realize that the ‘berg stole their idea and made millions. Both played by the same oddly named actor, Armie Hammer, the twins’ Parent Trap-style doubling is one of Fincher’s few masterfully executed visual gags. For the man who flew his camera through a coffee pot in Panic Room, I expected more tricks outside of the few stray beer bottles, but maybe the director intentionally reeled back his cinematographic enthusiasm to draw reverence to Sorkin’s story. In any case, the tone and execution work on a massive scale, and aside from the necessarily muddy nature of the ending, this is an enjoyable film and clearly one of the year’s best.
Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is without a doubt his finest performance to date, leaps and bounds beyond the average joe schtick that made him famous in Zombieland. His acting is refined, nuanced and another great example of why Fincher is an ace in the hole when it comes to direction. Even as the director’s love for CGI and camera-movement is restrained, his skill as an acting coach pays off in a big way. Rooney Mara’s all-too-brief screentime is populated by a deeply human and relatable performance as Zuckerberg’s first college girlfriend. Her teary-eyes are heartbreaking. Justin Timberlake manages to play a hateworthy dick convincingly (somehow), a true shame considering his abilities as an actor have greatly improved over the years. (I was really disappointed he didn’t get Green Lantern. His knack for physical comedy would have sold the character for me. After all, how many superheroes can Ryan Reynolds play?) The best and most surprising performance might belong to Andrew Garfield, last seen pissing me off in Dr. Parnassus, and soon to be the latest actor to take up the red pajamas of Spider-Man. After his empathetic and dweeby turn in Social Network as Zuckerberg’s socially maligned and malnourished best friend, it’s clear that this boy can fill the shoes of a superhero as well as many more challenging roles to come.
The Social Network is a triumph of character-based dialog but a few notes stray of a perfect symphony. Maybe it’s the nature of the story being told (it’s about a goddamned website, people) but the partnerships at work here are masterfully executed, and I think it would be a mistake not to team Fincher with Sorkin again in the future, perhaps on subject matter that didn’t beat out Lycos or Dogpile for the fast-track. A cerebral and interesting ride, The Social Network proves that even brand-based filmmaking can result in quality entertainment and palpable drama, so long as there’s a foundation of talent to keep everything grounded.