Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Social Network

When I first heard whispers of a Facebook movie going into development, I couldn't have been more disinterested. I'm not terribly familiar with Aaron Sorkin's work outside of A Few Good Men and Malice, and though David Fincher has directed some solid movies (The Game, Se7en), he's never been one of my favorite filmmakers. But after seeing an exceptional trailer and finally seeing the film, I can promise you this is not an eye roll-inducing "trying too hard" desperation stab at cultural relevancy. It's not a "too soon" effort to capitalize on the popularity of Facebook, and it's not a boring movie that's merely about the creation of the site itself. Then what is it? The Social Network is a damn good movie that borders on brilliant.

The Social Network
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

The film's opening scene features rapid-fire dialogue that begins even before the Columbia logo fades from the screen and continues for a solid five minutes without stopping. The two characters, Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica* (Rooney Mara) are constantly questioning each other and their place in the conversation since they each move past elements so quickly it's impossible for the other to keep up. But this scene isn't written for the gimmick of having fast-talking young actors sitting across from each other (Diablo Cody, take note). It's a microcosm of one of the film's many themes: members of the "I want it now" generation can quickly and easily get themselves into trouble by speaking too quickly without thinking, and, while undoubtedly stylized beyond a certain level of realism, this scene presents that idea as it simultaneously sets up the personality of our apparent protagonist.

This "blog first, ask questions later" mentality is touched upon (and frowned upon) many times in the movie, which also deals with some larger issues like where the line is drawn for intellectual property theft, corporate ethics, and the personal conflicts that arise when friends are in business together. Fincher himself jokingly referred to the film as "the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies," but there have been some people who have taken that phrase to heart, actually comparing The Social Network to the movie widely considered the greatest film ever made. (I even scoffed at this notion before seeing the film.) But it's possible I was too rash with that dismissal; after seeing the movie, it might be safe to call The Social Network the Citizen Kane for the modern generation. Structurally, the film takes elements from Kane, including a great flashback framing device involving Zuckerberg being sued by two separate plaintiffs at the same time, as well as the more simple plot component of charting the rise and fall of a wealthy young entrepreneur. There's also a bit of a "Rosebud" feel to the ending, which I won't get into here.

Based on Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires," The Social Network obviously takes some liberties with the supposed real life portrayals of situations, people, and events. That brings up an entirely different set of questions, mostly regarding how ethical it is to craft a film that portrays its lead character - a real person still living and working, mind you - in a less-than-flattering light and passing it off as potentially more fact than fiction. I will cry no tears for the real life Zuckerberg as he basks in his billionaire status, but if I were him I wouldn't be thrilled with my on-screen portrayal.

Regardless, Sorkin and Fincher have taken a story that involves a lot of seemingly boring things - computer coding, general nerdiness, and corporate business - and flipped it into a compelling drama that plays at breakneck speed. There is so much more weight to this story than similar internet "rise and fall" films; the 2008 Josh Hartnett vehicle August is a good example of a movie that attempts to capture the same importance that The Social Network provides, but, because the latter makes it look so easy, ultimately fails in comparison. 

Jesse Eisenberg, an actor many have dubbed the poor man's Michael Cera, delivers a star-making performance as Zuckerberg, the egotistical creator - and alleged thief - of Facebook. I think the Cera comparisons can stop here: I've never seen Cera give this level of dramatic performance, and I think Eisenberg clearly steps out of that "awkward guy" shadow and into a spotlight all his own. He dominates every scene with the lawyers, vocally destroying one who questions if Mark has "his full attention." It'll be interesting to see Eisenberg return to comedy after this, since he absolutely destroys this performance; if we compare his career to that of another actor, I'd say this might be his equivalent to The Truman Show

Andrew Garfield also did some spectacular work as Eduardo Saverin, Mark's partner and CFO of Facebook. Indeed, rumor has it Garfield was chosen as the next Spider-Man based on his work in The Social Network. In any case, he was remarkably different from his quiet performance in Never Let Me Go, and I much preferred his character here. And while I won't claim to have been preaching from the Gospel of Timberlake since the beginning, I will say that ever since 2006's Alpha Dog, I've considered Justin Timberlake a quality actor. This is easily his best role, and he injects the character of Sean Parker (the creator of Napster) with a confidence heretofore unseen in his filmography.

One other thing regarding the acting: the final credits listed Armie Hammer (formerly cast as Batman in George Miller's abandoned Justice League movie) as playing both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, brothers who are one of the parties suing Zuckerberg for intellectual theft. If this is true, then hats off to Mr. Hammer for fantastic dueling performances and even more congratulations to the filmmakers for pulling off an absolutely seamless transition throughout the duration of the movie. IMDb currently claims Josh Pence plays Tyler Winklevoss, but I remember the credits giving Hammer credit and recently confirmed that with a friend of mine.

In my review of Catfish, I wondered if that film might actually be more about Facebook than The Social Network. Both movies clearly speak to our connectivity in different ways: Facebook was used more as a tool in Catfish, reflecting real world applications for the site, and The Social Network arranges it as an empire with idealistic goals, posturing the site itself as an exclusive club much like the ones which Zuckerberg yearns to be invited. 

The addition of Sean Parker to the mix adds another level of complexity to the film. Best friends Eduardo and Mark clash over how to capitalize on the overnight success of the site, and Parker's flashy ways ultimately contribute to Mark and Eduardo's deteriorating relationship. Zuckerberg is smitten with Parker's business tactics, and Eduardo and his nose-to-the-grindstone methods to secure advertising are (spoiler alert for real life) slowly edged out in favor of the brazen antics of the former Napster wonderboy.

The Social Network is the kind of film in which you know you're witnessing something special as it unfolds before you. It's not breathtaking in the same way as this summer's Inception, but in a much more subtle manner - the writing, direction, acting, and music (a solid score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) come together to tell an allegedly true story of something that has a tactile effect on our daily lives. I hesitate to throw around the term "masterpiece" since it devalues the term if every 20th movie is a masterpiece, but the more I think about it, the more this film actually applies to that definition. It's easily my favorite Fincher movie, and assuredly pulls triple duty as a coming-of-age story, a biographical time capsule, and an outstanding courtroom drama that never actually enters a courtroom. The Social Network is a must-see for members of the Facebook generation. Until next time... 

*Rooney Mara won the hotly-contested role of Lisbeth Salander in the English language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, beating out the likes of Natalie Portman, Ellen Page, and many more. Fincher is also directing that project, which is filming now, and seemingly cast Mara based on her work in The Social Network. I'm not entirely sure what he saw in her as Lisbeth Salander, because it's not entirely clear from her work in this film that she's a good fit for the character. Maybe he saw something that we didn't. Guess we'll have to wait to find out.


nicole said...

Great review. I love your writing style. I was on the fence about seeing this one before DVD, but now you've changed my mind :]

Ben Pearson said...

Much appreciated. Thanks for reading!

And yes - this one is definitely worth seeing in theaters.

The Real Alan Trehern said...

Wait, does he REALLY have 500 million friends?