By Ty Burr
September 30, 2010
‘The Social Network’’ opens with a scene — already justly celebrated — in which a college-age couple sits in a darkened Cambridge restaurant and discusses their relationship. Face to face, no typing involved: How quaint. It’s not going well for the guy, a weedy, focused sort named Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) who talks as if he’s trying to break the sound barrier and assumes his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), will keep up. She doesn’t, and after a while her eyes go dead and she’s not his girlfriend anymore.
Angered, he goes back to his dorm and does what any self-respecting sophomore software geek would do: insults her on his blog and invents a program that lets users vote on the hottest freshman woman in Harvard’s photo database. This is the movie’s hero, or anti-hero, and your own response to David Fincher’s brilliantly assured, blithely fictionalized drama about the founding of Facebook.com will depend on whether you can appreciate a story in which the main character is so pathologically unsocialized yet so commanding. That might even be the point — that what a generation now calls “socializing’’ is in fact the loneliest, most self-absorbed activity of all.
But “The Social Network’’ has more on its mind than Mark Zuckerberg, or the version of Zuckerberg that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has derived from the Ben Mezrich book “The Accidental Billionaires’’ and other sources. The film is very much about belonging and wanting to belong — about the desperate need to be part of the in-crowd and the complacency of those already there. Like Fincher’s “Zodiac,’’ “The Social Network’’ sprawls with characters, almost all of them male, deluded, entitled, and craving what the others have got. If you don’t see the comedy here, you’ll probably think you’re watching a horror movie.
Zuckerberg, for instance, would kill to belong to one of Harvard’s elite final clubs, which the movie hilariously paints as dens of Junior League depravity. By contrast, his upper-crust classmates the Winklevoss twins — both Tyler and Cameron played in a sly bit of digital trickery by one actor, Armie Hammer — need a lowly computer nerd to realize their idea for a campus-wide online social network. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Napster cofounder who becomes Zuckerberg’s mentor late in the movie, just wants to stick it to the business world that stuck it to him.
Caught in the middle, and the closest the movie comes to an audience surrogate, is Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s closest friend and chief financial officer. Eduardo is potentially a member of all of these groups and thus ends up in virtually none of them, and Garfield, on tap to be the next Spider-Man, recognizes the dark farce in Eduardo’s dilemma and keeps him from becoming a sap. But all the acting is razor-sharp, from Timberlake’s paranoid slickster to Hammer’s delightful double turn as rich-boy jocks who think they can win using daddy’s Ivy League rules to the regally thuggish Douglas Urbanski as Harvard president Lawrence Summers.
Unexpectedly, Eisenberg comes of age as an actor here; it’s doubtful anyone will mistake him for Michael Cera again. Impatience, insecurity, and imperiousness radiate from his Zuckerberg in brutally measured amounts, and the character’s tunnel vision fuels both his isolation and his arrogance. Facebook becomes the self-centered social world he can’t have in real life — that’s the website’s addictive genius — yet, even then, he’s more creator than participant. This Zuckerberg is a Charles Foster Kane with Asperger’s, a notion Sorkin’s script embraces in ways both subtle (Garfield’s Saverin could be a stand-in for Jed Leland) and glib (the final image, as easy as it is devastating).
All that “The Social Network’’ lacks is a strong female presence: Brenda Song, as Eduardo’s girlfriend, doesn’t quite graduate from her status as Disney Channel princess, and Mara (soon to be seen as Lizbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’) isn’t onscreen enough. Again, that’s partly the point: Almost to a man, the characters in this movie do what they do to win over women (which is putting it politely). And almost to a man, they displace their energies into swordfights with other men (which is putting it politely).
On the level of craft, the movie’s just absurdly enjoyable. Sorkin’s dialogue dazzles; the photography is burnished and sleek; the editing confidently sorts out a complex narrative that bounces between the primary story line of Facebook’s creation (taking place from 2003 to Zuckerberg’s assuming the mantle of America’s youngest billionaire in 2008) and not one but two legal depositions. The action, both within the hallowed halls of Harvard and on the battlefields of Silicon Valley, is given impetus and urgency by the score, a work of seductive rock electronica from Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. The film moves like a shark, but it’s hardly soulless.
Instead, it coolly wonders what a generation of Internet entrepreneurs are doing with their souls and ours. In one of the deposition sequences — the dialogue taken verbatim from actual transcripts — an old-money lawyer asks the distracted Zuckerberg if he has his attention. The kid coldly replies, “You have a part of my attention. You have the minimal amount,’’ and we get a glimpse of the aggrieved datasets roaring through the character’s mind. In those datasets we now live.