“The Social Network”

It’s always thrilling to watch extremely intelligent people at work. “Good Will Hunting,” for example, derived much of its drama from the notion that a genius could be tucked away unglamorously in a janitor’s job, just waiting to burst free from the chains of manual labor and start saving the world. It’s an easy subject: the human intellect, and the extraordinary things it is capable of. And it is easy for an audience to get behind the underdog, who can solve equations with the flick of a wrist but stumbles over words when a pretty girl bats her eyes at him.

The drama of “The Social Network” is built on this easy foundation. But it is far more ambitious than just that. It is complicated, with shades of grey aplenty. Its hero, Mark Zuckerberg, seems driven by jealousy and insecurity, rather than the blithe social unawareness of the usual downtrodden nerd. In the first scene his girlfriend, who has finally had enough of his angry superciliousness, quite justifiably dumps him. This rejection acts as a springboard for his furious pursuance of the idea of Facebook. As he builds the site, he is alternately conniving and self-righteous. His principal positive attribute is that he isn’t driven by money or social stature. He wants to show he’s as worthy as the jocks and the preppies, but not so as to gain clout of any kind. He doesn’t want to be popular, nor does he want women following him around. Near the end of the film, as Facebook reaches its millionth user, his employees go out to party and he stays seated at his desk, surrounded by the new offices’ vast emptiness.

The film takes a simple premise – underdog achieving unforeseen things – and makes it into exquisitely high drama. The script is tight and sharp. It seamlessly integrates flash-forwards to the two court cases that resulted from Facebook’s sudden international explosion. It shows the protagonist, now already fabulously wealthy, acting awkward and dismissive and vindictive, as he rebuts the claims of the lawyers across the table. This flash-forward never seems clunky as a narrative device; instead, it gives a glimpse into the rifts Zuckerberg has caused, and his (understandably) ballooning egotism.

Of course, the “small man makes it big” success story is the source of much of the drama. The film elaborates on the formula, however, with several lovely touches. First off, the script is downright marvelous. If it doesn’t win the Oscar, the whole system is broken. In broad but subtle brush strokes, it shows the influence of the information age, and its ability to cross boundaries. The film’s scope is big; it first spans Harvard’s campus, then it expands across to the West coast, and soon across the entire world. Without compromising its intimate view of several key characters, it gives a genuine sense of the bigness of Facebook, the excitement of its ascent, and its near-immediate global influence. And the central location – the meeting room, where lawyers and plaintiffs and Zuckerberg collide – holds the film together, and anchors the drama.

The performances are almost uniformly good. One single man plays the twins who sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea for a social network. This actor, Armie Hammer, isn’t so much a great actor as he is perfectly cast. He is enormous and Aryan, with a magnetically deep voice. As the script writes the twins, they come off as narrow-minded, and a bit entitled, but far from the villains they would have been in a film of lesser aspirations and diminished subtleties.

Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Zuckerberg. He doesn’t stretch very far from his usual manic portrayals. In “Zombieland” and Adventureland” both, he was nervous and vulnerable; here, he is still nervous, but he has shut himself up enough so as not to be vulnerable any longer. And again, with the help of a pitch-perfect script, Eisenberg doesn’t really need to stretch. He has been perfectly cast, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity.

The only off-key performance is by Justin Timberlake. And this may have been also the script’s doing. Timberlake’s character is Sean Parker: founder of Napster, entrepreneur, and drug enthusiast. He is a one-note playboy. He is there simply for the sake of dramatic tension, to move in and disrupt the relationship between Zuckerberg and his co-founder, Eduardo Saverin. He steps in, throwing money around and capitalizing on Zuckerberg’s insecurities, and it all seems too simple. The film otherwise avoids already-trodden soil, and it is disappointing to see such a disingenuously cinematic element tossed directly into the plot. I think this subplot could have been avoided entirely; this would have allowed more emphasis on the student life at Harvard, which seems underdeveloped. Considering that Facebook had its inception there, and Zuckerberg’s insecurities play out most dramatically amongst thousands of peers, more emphasis on his Harvard days might have made the film perfect.

“The Social Network” is replete with loving flourishes. The music, which is largely pulsating techno, is deep and layered, and heightens the drama without sounding superfluous or overly intense. This is no easy task for techno. There is also an abundance of beautiful camerawork; one scene in particular, a regatta the cheated twins attend in Europe, is especially memorable. I’ve frankly never seen anything like it. The scene is a rare example of dazzling, virtuoso filmmaking: abrupt and breathtaking.

All in all, the film is certainly the best new movie I’ve seen since “The Hurt Locker.” Various people have raised fusses about its authenticity, but these fusses are utterly inconsequential to the average filmgoer. Unless you are a family member of one of the main players, or simply cannot accept dramatization for what it is, you should see “The Social Network.” It’s a rare bird these days.

 

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