Friday, October 1, 2010

The Social Network: Brave 'Face'

The Social Network (2010) • View trailer for The Social Network
4.5 stars (out of five). • Rating: PG-13 for considerable raunchy behavior, sexual content, drug use and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.01.10

Admire the art, abhor the artist.

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, left), bored and irritated
by depositions he is forced to attend, behaves as if he
couldn't care less whether millions of dollars are at stake
in such proceedings. And it's true: He doesn't care. Nothing
matters except his single-minded goal to completely
transform the Internet landscape ... and social rules
regarding personal privacy.
You've gotta be impressed by a film that holds us near breathless, despite spending so much time with a protagonist we loathe.

Director David Fincher's mesmerizing depiction of the tempestuous events that led to Facebook's creation is can't-miss cinema: a bravura blend of dead-on casting, engaging performances, slick pacing and captivating writing.

Particularly the latter. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, adapted from Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires, is a masterpiece of clever composition and rat-a-tat dialogue. It'll be adored by film buffs who admire the machine-gun verbal byplay in (for example) classic Howard Hawks comedies such as 1940's His Girl Friday.

Fincher's film is both stylistically retro and blindingly contemporary, a true-life fable that proves, once and for all, that truth really is stranger than fiction. It's also a shrewd and perceptive statement of our narcissistic times: an indictment as unerringly  and uneasily  accurate as last year's Up in the Air.

And, not least, this film is something of a magic trick, taking a subject as potentially dull and obtuse as computer coding, and transforming it into a fascinating study of talent, greed, betrayal, misunderstanding and rage-fueled vengeance. The drama here is positively Shakespearean.

I haven't been so impressed by a writer's ability to sizzle up a storyline since William Goldman turned plodding investigative journalism into the equivalent of suspenseful espionage, with his Academy Award-winning screenplay for 1976's All the President's Men.

But, then, we probably should have expected as much from Sorkin, who held us enthralled for several seasons of TV's The West Wing (and, for those of us who bothered to watch, the single season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip).

Jesse Eisenberg, cast to hate-him-on-sight perfection as Harvard computer genius Mark Zuckerberg, delivers a career-making performance as a geeky, gawky, socially inept nebbish. One glance, and we know this guy was bullied mercilessly in grade school, never got a date in high school, and carries the weight of peer envy now that he's in Harvard.

We want to like Mark, at least initially; he seems ideally positioned as the sort of talented underdog who deserves to triumph. But Fincher constantly plays against this expectation; his handling of Mark is merciless. Eisenberg's sour-lemon, pinched-face stoicism can't conceal a ruthless, elitist contempt every bit as judgmental as that emanating from the Harvard aristocrats whom he despises.

Mark's character is succinctly diagnosed, right in the first scene, as his ungoverned mouth torpedoes what might have turned into a solid relationship with girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Mark clearly lacks the perception to recognize how he's destroying his own chances with this attractive and personable young woman ... nor, we quickly realize, would he modify his behavior even if he did "get it."

Erica, initially blind-sided but quick to rally, responds with the sort of classic Sorkin put-down that we'd all love to dream up:

"You're going to be successful and rich. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

Erica's character is the one blatant fiction in this storyline: an icon created to represent "the girl who got away," who will serve as something of a metaphor for Mark's every subsequent action.

The remaining members of Mark's dysfunctional social circle, however, come straight from real life.

And court depositions.

The initial details apparently aren't in dispute. One drunken night in October 2003  here, after being dumped by Erica  Mark hacks into the university computers and blazes his way through coding and creating a Web site that lines up two pictures of Harvard women, and asks the user to choose which is "hotter." The site, dubbed "Facemash," goes viral in a heartbeat; overuse quickly crashes the entire Harvard system.

Mark gets hauled up on charges of breaching security, violating individual privacy and violating copyrights. And while the accompanying accusation of misogyny lacks the stamp of official censure, that's the nugget that turns Mark into a campus pariah.

Not that he cares a jot.

Best friend  only friend  Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is sympathetic but hardly surprised; we get a sense that he has witnessed many similar transgressions from Mark, and gamely picked up the pieces. We briefly wonder about the origins of this friendship  how could anybody have tolerated Mark for so long?  but let the issue drop. Childhood bonds can be strong, and it's the one plot point Sorkin insists we take on faith.

Although now even more disenfranchised than ever, Mark's stunt brings him to the attention of classmates Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the impressively buff Winklevoss twins, Cameron (Armie Hammer) and Tyler (Josh Pence). They've come up with an idea for a dating site to be called Harvard Connection, but they need a coder. Mark agrees to help.

Or so we're led to believe.

Mark never gets around to doing anything for them; weeks later  with financial assistance from Eduardo  he unveils his own site, dubbed The Facebook. Which proves even more popular than Facemash had been.

The actual truth of what was or wasn't said, when Mark met Divya, Cameron and Tyler, never will be known; veracity has since been sacrificed on the altar of vengeance. And this is where the genius nature of Sorkin's script emerges. All these events are being reconstructed for us on the basis of depositions given during two simultaneous legal proceedings: one suit brought against Mark by the Winklevoss twins, and a second brought against Mark by ... Eduardo.

You may think I'm guilty of unleashing a spoiler, but that isn't true; Sorkin's ode to Rashomon is unveiled rather quickly. And it's a stacked deck: The increasingly damning portrait of Mark emerges because we're hearing the story only as Cameron, Tyler and Eduardo tell it. Mark can't be bothered to speak up in his own defense, and his few snarky side comments merely enhance our already deteriorating opinion of him.

But plenty of people are socially graceless, even when a modicum of tact would work to their advantage. That doesn't necessarily make them duplicitous, even though Mark seems guilty as sin. Fincher and Sorkin repeatedly challenge us to find an elusive note of grace in Mark's character, and that's the brilliance of this film: the degree to which we can remain open-minded.

Our detached surrogate in this story  if anybody can remain detached  is Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones, nicely modulated), a young co-counsel who observes the depositions as something of a training exercise. Our ability to view Mark through her eyes will help determine our response to him.

Of course, the interpersonal dynamic is only part of the story. The other staggering element is the speed with which Mark became the "It" kid, soon attracting the attention not only of the sexually available Harvard groupies and aristocratic party people who previously ignored him, but also of would-be investors and self-serving "advisers" such as Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, every inch a slimy, opportunistic weasel).

With a storyline this busy and a script laced with so much piquant dialogue, it's inevitable that a few details get sidetracked. Eduardo's girlfriend, Christy (Brenda Song), goes from sympathetic ally to unbalanced comic relief in a heartbeat; that's just ... weird. Similarly, Divya's relationship with the Winklevoss twins  and what he brings to the party  isn't clearly delineated.

Such lapses are easy to overlook, though, given so many strong performances. Hammer and Pence are an enthusiastic hoot as the Winklevoss twins: privileged snobs we should detest just as much as Mark ... and yet we can't. They're too charismatic, too perceptive, too sharply observed ... and too gorgeous.

Garfield carries most of the story's emotional weight, since Eduardo is the one character whose faith in Mark slips by inches, as he watches his friend become even more of an obsessive monster than usual. Garfield allows us to feel every despairing notch of Eduardo's ever-engulfing pain.

We emerge from this film exhilarated, marveling at the degree to which so many of these people have been depicted as despicable weasels. Timberlake's handling of Parker is particularly odious, but everything returns to Eisenberg's relentlessly cold and haughty rendition of Mark. Ouch.

In a Sept. 20 New Yorker profile  essential reading for anybody intrigued by the events depicted in this film  Zuckerberg claims to have no plans to see this movie. No surprise, there. But I wonder how this man, with the far-sighted goal of re-defining privacy, will respond to such a fascinating invasion of his own personal space.

If Eisenberg's portrayal is even the slightest bit accurate, we probably should worry about Mark's response...

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