October 7, 2010


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The Social Network (R)
A nerd with an idea and a bunch of weird inadequacies invents the all-powerful Facebook in The Social Network, a movie, possessing of some amount of truth, about the founding of Facebook and the people associated with that Web 2.0 big bang.

I donít know how much of the movie is dramatization, how much is true and how much is sorta true, depending on your point of view. Aaron Sorkin, this movieís screenwriter, has been reported as saying something to the effect of not wanting the truth to get in the way of a good story. So donít base your school report on social networking on this movie.

We meet Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as he is sitting in a bar in Cambridge, getting dumped by his girlfriend for being a top-flight schmuck. Vaguely Aspergers-ish in his inability to read or understand people and their emotions, Mark seems generally rather immature but is a very smart programmer and is desperate to fit in with the upper echelons of his schoolís ó Harvard ó social structure. After being dumped, Zuckerberg returns to his dorm and, with a little help from friend and fellow programmer Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), builds Facemash, a site that allows you to determine whoís hotter, this girl or that girl, using pictures of girls from the face books of various Harvard houses.

The site, viewed as offensive, particularly when paired with sophomoric comments he made on a blog he was writing while creating Facemash, almost gets him thrown out of school but it also gets him noticed. Specifically, it gets him noticed by the delightfully named Winklevoss brothers, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Josh Pence), and their business partner Divya Narenda (Max Minghella), who are trying to start a social networking site called Harvard Connection. They ask Zuckerberg to work on the project. In the movie, he stalls and instead builds the potentially similar The Facebook with money from Saverin and help from his roommate Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello). At first the site acts like an online version of a college face book ó names and faces of your fellow students ó but adds the comment posting and the relationship status. The site starts as a Harvard site but spreads to other elite colleges. As The Facebook, eventually shortened to just ďFacebookĒ on the advice of Napsterís co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), becomes the hot new thing, Eduardo Saverin wants to start selling ads on the site and making money with it. Zuckerberg, seeking something far more elusive than money, wants only to keep growing Facebook. He follows Parkerís advice and heads to Silicon valley, pursuing the one-million-member milestone, and losing Saverin, his best friend, along the way. This story is told, from various points of view, in flashbacks from two different depositions of two lawsuits ó the Winklevoss brothers and Narenda vs. Zuckerberg and Saverin vs. Zuckerberg.

Iíve seen the movie described as a hatchet job on Zuckerberg and Facebook and I donít quite think itís that. For one thing, it makes Facebook look very cool ó specifically the original Facebook, the one that helped college students from elite schools hook up with each other, as opposed to the current Facebook (which, with its pages for all your relatives, that kid from your second-grade class and a host of businesses, seems less cool by comparison). Zuckerberg wants to be part of the elite secret societies at Harvard, the ones full of students like the Winklevosses, leftovers from Harvardís WASPy past, who have access to high society and cute girls. Facebook, at least in the beginning, looks like an elite, dishy thing that, if you were 20 in 2003 and 2004, youíd want to be on. And Zuckerberg, who, granted, does not come off as Prince Charming, comes off as more layered than just a solid villain. He is a nerd who canít talk to girls, he is a social climber but also a protector of the meritocracy. He knows he is a bad-ass programmer, with an ability few others have to see the possibilities of the web, but he canít always see the broader results of his actions. He is clearly a guy who wants friends but also one who doesnít know how to hang on to the ones he has.

In short, Eisenberg makes Zuckerberg a person, and therefore far more fascinating than any one-note hero could have been.

Also, the movie doesnít paint anybody with a particularly heroic brush. People and organizations that come off looking somewhere between despicable (Harvard as a whole) and merely ridiculous (the Winklevi, as Zuckerberg calls the brothers who go on to row crew for the U.S. in the Olympics) include Larry Summers, the final clubs (those elite clubs Zuckerberg wishes he could join), Sean Parker and Harvardís disciplinary board. Saverin might be the closest thing this movie has to an actual hero and even he comes off as a whiner.

And thatís fine. Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter here and brain behind The West Wing and Sports Night, does a good job with this kind of nerdery and these kinds of less-than-angelic characters. He turns the anger, the expectation of privilege, the frustration and the smarts that outstrip wisdom ó characteristics that all of these characters possess ó into tasty dialogue and delightfully dry humor.

Where the movie falls down is in some of those other Sorkin touches ó strong start with mushy, half-baked ending and a complete lack of ability to craft a single believable female character. In a story that doesnít have many women, the few that do show up in The Social Network really stand out for their lack of dimension. They are all, save two, some kind of groupie. The other two ó one is that girl who dumps Zuckerberg in the beginning and the other is a lawyer played by Rashida Jones, whose job is to feel sorry for Zuckerberg and then deliver a mournful pronouncement on his character.

The Social Network is like one of Sorkinís best The West Wing episodes ó the ones where process and geeky inside details were in the spotlight. Even if you donít worship at the Facebook altar, The Social Network is a fascinating look at how it became the behemoth it is today. B+

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language. Directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin (from a book by Ben Mezrich), The Social Network is two hours long and distributed in wide release by Columbia TriStar.