Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network: A Review (Review #126)


Citizen Zukerberg...

'Friend' is not a verb. You can no more 'friend' someone than you can 'enemy' them. I have an old-world view of friendship: I have to have met my friends at least once. We have a world where total strangers share the most mundane or intimate details of their lives to people they've never met.

This is the world we have now thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, the subject of The Social Network, which is about the creation of Facebook and the ensuing lawsuits it sparked.  The Social Network is not so much about the actual nuts and bolts of how this Internet juggernaut came to be as it is a character study of Zuckerberg, a man who is the living epitome (or as Shia LaBeouf would say, eh-pi-tohm) of a paradox: one who created a new definition of 'friend' while not being able to be or have one himself.

Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has a break-up with his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Drunk and angry, he goes on an online tirade against her, culminating into hacking into the Harvard database to ridicule other women's looks. His stunt gets the attention of the Winklevoss twins: Tyler and Cameron (Armie Hammer & Josh Pence, the latter being the body double while having the former's face superimposed on Pence's body) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella).

They come to Zuckerberg with a business deal: help them create a site that will connect fellow Harvard students where only Harvard students can join. This idea intrigues Zuckerberg, who is interested in expanding his previous antics with a more legitimate venture, and asks his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to put up the money to start something then called "The Facebook". Once The Facebook goes live Narendra and Cameron Winklevoss are convinced Zuckerberg screwed them over, but twin brother Tyler won't agree to sue him due to his code as "a gentleman of Harvard".

Zuckerberg and Saverin are slowing building their Facebook business, and while the latter advises a slow and steady road the latter wants success now. Soon, Zuckerberg falls under the spell of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who offers him a series of contacts who can finance his endeavors. Zuckerberg and Parker soon become financially successful, but at the cost of forcing Saverin virtually out of the company he helped build. Saverin, hurt and angry, sues Zuckerberg, as do Nirendra and the Winklevoss Twins, Tyler having reached his breaking point when he discovers Facebook is now international.

These two disparate stories are tied in within a framing device of the two lawsuits, as Zuckerberg faces fights on two fronts.

At the center of The Social Network is the conflicted, contradictory figure of Zuckerberg, a man who wants popularity and emotional connection but simply cannot stand those who are popular and who cannot give anyone intimacy. As portrayed by Eisenberg, he is a man both repelled and attracted by the In Crowd, such as in his desire to join Harvard's final clubs and his need to not go back to anonymity. The Social Network's Zuckerberg appears at times to have a form of Asperger's Syndrome in his inability to be intimate emotionally with anyone, even with Saverin, who appears to be the only person who genuinely cares for and about him. Zuckerberg's near-blank expression and almost total disinterest when he and Saverin are soliciting potential clients shows him to be almost anti-social (which given Facebook's purpose, would be one of the many ironies in the film).

Eisenberg has his trademark rapid-fire delivery, making his performance no real different than in Zombieland. He has perfected the personification of the neurotic yet intelligent and socially awkward nerd, so his take on Mark Zuckerberg is not a jump from his role as Columbus. Still, it worked in The Social Network, where he doesn't try to make Zuckerberg a sympathetic character but shows that his sense of importance is mixed with a wild insecurity.

Garfield is, perhaps not the hero (that being too strong a word), but the heart of the film. Saverin is the most relateable character in the film, the one we can identify with. His performance is one of a sincere fondness for Zuckerberg, making the scene when he discovers Zuckerberg and Parker have shrunk his shares in Facebook from 34% to a mere 0.3 % all the more hurtful. He mixes that hurt and anger brilliantly, and in the various deposition scenes you see in Garfield's performance that Saverin does not delight in all this, but that he is compelled to take his actions.

Just as Eisenberg gives us his usual Eisenberg mannerisms in The Social Network, Timberlake as Parker isn't any different than Timberlake is when performing on stage. Sexy Back is playing a brash, excessively confident figure, almost the Dark Side of Zuckerberg: someone who used the Internet to not just gain a fortune but the attention of beautiful women. There's a sense of hero worship in The Social Network for Parker by Zuckerberg, to where the former becomes almost a Svengali-like figure, getting the latter to do both irrational things (going to Facebook financial backers in his pajamas and bathrobe to tell them to go screw themselves and thus give Parker the satisfaction of getting petty revenge on them) and mean-spirited (freezing out Saverin both financially and emotionally).

This isn't to say the character Sexy Back plays isn't done well: he often wears black clothes, as is to suggest a demon-like character who is both an embodiment of all of Zuckerberg's darkest desires and his mirror opposite. Personally, his performance is being wildly overpraised, as if this was the equivalent of Montgomery Clift in Red River. Sexy Back appears to be playing either himself or a variation thereof.

Nothing epitomizes the In Crowd more than the Winklevoss Twins, who come off as the living embodiment of WASP entitlement mentality. Everything about them as created by Hammer/Pence shows them to be from an elitist world: being in the best final clubs, being in the sport of rowing, having their father use connections to get them an audience with then-Harvard President Larry Summers.

Even in Tyler Wilklevoss' refusal to sue Zuckerberg in the beginning comes not from a sense that they think they have a weak case, but from a sense that people like the Winklevosses shouldn't demean themselves by taking things like this to court. In their world, a simple 'cease and desist' order from the patrician twins should be enough to get the plebeian and definitely non-WASP (read, Jewish) Zuckerberg to stop his actions. When Tyler finally reaches his tipping point, his declaration that it's finally time to "gut this nerd" shows the twins and the Brahman-like Narendra to have a sense of superiority along with a case against Zuckerberg.

Aaron Sorkin is the type of writer critics swoon over, primarily due to programs like Sports Night, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, and especially The West Wing, which the critics saw as virtually the Citizen Kane of television programs. Sorkin (basing The Social Network on the nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires) is known for sharp dialogue delivered in a rapid-fire manner. Here, it isn't as fast as something like Sports Night (the only Sorkin show I did watch on a regular basis) but it is filled with brilliant insight and shrewd commentary.

Take the beginning, where Zuckerberg is dumped: not only is there a fast exchange between Mara and Eisenberg but a clever line. There is a certain irony in the man who made 'friend' a verb telling someone, "I don't want friends". You see the Sorkin Style in the scenes involving a chicken (yes, a chicken), and in the scene where Sevarin's extremely jealous girlfriend sets a gift he gave her on fire, she complains about how Saverin hasn't changed his relationship status from "Single". In an odd way, it serves as a harbinger of so many similar situations being played out now, where people follow others on Facebook to the point of obsession.

Sorkin's script is given great care in David Fincher's direction. Fincher never has a weak moment with his actors, and even in small parts (such as Rashida Jones as one of Zuckerberg's attorneys) he pushes the cast to strong performances.

I have mentioned Citizen Kane, and part of the hype has been to compare The Social Network with that film. Let me state for the record that The Social Network is nowhere near the same league as Citizen Kane in terms of cinematic breakthrough or genius. If there is anything that they share, it's the central character.

Like Charles Foster Kane, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg is a wealthy and powerful figure whom the film revolves around but who is still a bit of a mystery by the end. People talk about Kane/Zuckerberg, both are seen to have changed their world, but they also end up alone and generally unloved when love is the only thing both ever wanted. The same themes of Kane: the corrupting influence of money and power on the human soul, the inability of someone who wants love to love, are there in The Social Network. The fact they strike similar notes does not mean they are equivalent in terms of cinema history.

The last scene of The Social Network, curiously, reminded me not of Citizen Kane, but of another movie. Zuckerberg is alone in the deposition room. He gets on Facebook and looks up Erica Albright, the girl whose rejection was the impetus to where he is now. She has a Facebook account of her own. He stares at the page for a moment, then submits a Friend Request to her. He then starts to refresh and refresh the page, checking to see if the girl he wrote online about being a bitch will accept him as a friend.

What is more ironic: that she would have a Facebook knowing the man who publicly humiliated her started the company or that the man who created a new level of intimacy would be asking someone and be nearly desperate to be friends when he could never be one?

As I drove home, I kept wondering what that last scene reminded me of. When I walked into the house, it hit me. The ending to The Social Network reminded me of the closing scene in The Godfather Part II. Both Zuckerberg and Michael Corleone have achieved their ultimate goal: the former is the world's youngest billionaire and the latter the undisputed Boss of Bosses. They are both at the apex of power and wealth. Both control the worlds they created.

However, both are completely alone and unloved, having isolated and pushed away every person who either genuinely or potentially could have cared about them. Both end their stories in isolation, pondering their pasts, wanting someone by their side yet unable to give the unconditional love they themselves seek, wondering about those who once were in their worlds but are now permanently out of reach.

As I think on The Social Network, I find it a story much richer, much deeper than perhaps I gave it credit back the first time I saw it.  It's a story of irony: the man who brought the world closer yet cannot get close to anyone.  It's a story of power: the wealthy elite fighting against an upstart from the wrong class/background.  It's a story of our times.  If it weren't for the wild praise it got, I might think more highly of The Social Network, but as it stands, it is among the best films of 2010.

Born 1984
Did I hear someone say, 'Rosebud'?


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