The Social Network: movie review

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'The Social Network:' A story of betrayal on the road to glory. The knockabout beginnings of Facebook gets a fast-paced spin in the new movie 'The Social Network.'

Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures/AP
Justin Timberlake (l.) and Jesse Eisenberg are shown in a scene from 'The Social Network.'

"The Social Network," about Mark Zuckerberg and the knockabout beginnings of his creation, Facebook, is a prime example of an op-ed movie – a film so topical it transcends mere movieness.

Does this also mean it's great? Well, no, although you wouldn't know it from all the advance critical hoopla. Most movies are unconcerned with the real, roiling world of commerce and communication. "The Social Network," by contrast, depicts the Facebook enterprise as, like it or not, a cosmic cultural shift.

Director David Fincher and his screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (creator of "The West Wing"), loosely adapting Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book "The Accidental Billionaires," are not uncynical about the ways in which this enterprise and its instigator racked up the betrayals on the road to glory. More often than not, Mark comes across as a soulless savant. (A more accurate title for this film might be "The Revenge of the Nerds.")

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These jaundiced filmmakers are nevertheless awed by the system that made Facebook possible. "The Social Network" is a warts-and-all celebration of visionary capitalism and of the moxie required to realize the vision. Mark is both the unlikeliest and likeliest of heroes – or, more precisely, antiheroes – for our time. He's a wolf in geek's clothing.

The problem is, the geek in question, at least as Jesse Eisenberg plays him, doesn't have the emotional expansiveness to fill out a movie. Perhaps sensing this, the filmmakers play out the story line from multiple points of view and crowd the stage with a pageant of voluble supporting characters. At times, Mark seems like a bit actor in his own fantasia, and although this dramatic ploy is no doubt intentional, it makes for a rather unwieldy (and overlong) odyssey.

It begins in the fall of 2003, when Mark, having just been dumped by his girlfriend and licking his wounds, retreats to his Harvard dormitory and hacks into the university's computers to create the site Facemash – a database of all the women on campus. Photos are lined up two at a time and users are asked to choose who is "hotter." The site is instantly so popular that Harvard's entire system crashes.

From these unseemly beginnings is born what eventually becomes Facebook, which quickly spreads beyond Harvard to become a global phenomenon. Along the way, Mark, who drops out of college after his sophomore year to run the business from Palo Alto, Calif., inevitably runs a gantlet of accusations and recriminations.

He alienates his closest friend and Facebook's cofounder, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who sues him, and is likewise sued by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, identical twin Harvard BMOCs who, with a whiff of WASP-ish disdain, claim Mark stole their idea. (In an amazing feat of filmic prestidigitation, Armie Hammer, with the assistance of Josh Pence as a body double, plays both brothers.) He also attracts the attentions of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who functions for Mark as a cross between Svengali and Eddie Haskell.

Fincher periodically intercuts his straightforward chronology with deposition scenes involving Mark and both Eduardo and the Winklevosses. In flashback, he presents "Rashomon"-style versions of what really happened and leaves it up to us to sort out the truth, or truthiness, of the claims.

From a legal standpoint, this is probably the only way that the filmmakers could have told this story without getting sued by everybody under the sun, but it also conveniently absolves them from taking a stand on the Facebook hoo-ha one way or the other. Since Mark is presented as a human cipher anyway, the deliberate ambiguity of the flashbacks registers as just one more blur in a fuzzy landscape.

The filmmakers trumpet the irony that an essentially friendless dweeb – the "Mark Zuckerberg" they created for this movie – founded the world's preeminent aggregator of friends (or, to be more exact, "friends"). But why is this such a surprise? If Mark had a raft of real friends he probably would not have felt the need (or had the time) to create a social-network engine. The virtuality of his life gave rise to the reality of Facebook.

Despite the whiz-bang topicality, the headlong intelligence, and the many sharp collegiate scenes – a testy meeting between the Winklevoss twins and Harvard president Lawrence Summers (Douglas Urbanski) is a classic – this new-style movie hews pretty closely to an old-style playbook. The filmmakers have talked it up as a classic story of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and jealousy, but, with the exception of Eduardo, the cast of characters – beginning with Mark – are all aggressively one-dimensional. I scrutinized their scrimmages rather than becoming emotionally invested in them.

The filmmakers were probably thinking of Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane when they created their own soulless mogul. They even provide Mark with his own version of "Rosebud," the key that supposedly unlocks his psyche. Mark, it seems, created Facebook to get back at a girl he still pines for in the end. This faux Freudian soppiness is a disservice to Mark's rapacity, but still it gave me pause: How many other jilted geniuses are out there poised to unleash their newfangled networking whammies on us? Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and language.)

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