Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: "The Social Network"

I cannot tell you if "The Social Network" is an accurate account of the founding of Facebook, the Internet colossus the lets people project their identity -- even create one -- on the Web.

The book it was based on by Ben Mezrich has been accused of being a highly fictionalized, one-sided affair that paints a portrait of Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a brilliant but destructive genius who estranged anyone close to him.

The irony being, of course, that the wunderkind who helped connect 500 million friends doesn't have any of his own. The few people he hadn't turned off with his abrasive, domineering personality he drove away through his obsessive need to build the millennium's Next Cool Thing.

What I can say about this film directed by David Fincher from a script by Aaron Sorkin is that it's an altogether mesmerizing tale, filled with unexpected dark humor, that plucks a lot of resonant strings about the Digital Age. On the surface it's a legal drama, but the story underneath the story is how techno-savvy nerds are using computer code to rewrite the power structures that have endured for generations.

It's an extravaganza of greed, ambition, stupendous egos and cutthroat business deals. It is certainly one of the best movies of the year.

In a bravura performance brimming with nervous energy, Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg, a computer science sophomore at Harvard who is dumped by his girlfriend in the film's opening minutes. Angry and half-drunk, Mark rushes back to his dorm and performs the Internet equivalent of a drive-by shooting, creating a nasty site called Facesmash where male students can rate the attractiveness of their female peers side-by-side.

The stunt crashes the school's servers and earns Mark academic probation from Harvard, but also demonstrates the power of social connections transported online.

When a pair of blueblood twin upperclassmen, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, pitch him the idea of creating an exclusive social networking site for Harvard, Mark immediately walks it across the street to his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who has an affinity for business and the cash to get them started.

The site goes live and is an immediate sensation, spreading to dozens of schools. The Winklevosses -- or Winklevi, as Mark dismissively dubs them -- try to use their old-money connections to shut Facebook down. When that fails, they sue.

The narrative unfolds as a series of flashbacks framed by depositions for the Winklevoss lawsuit ... and also, Eduardo's. As we learn early on, a massive split grew between the two co-founders, leading to Eduardo suing Mark for pushing him out of the company right as it was headed to the stratosphere.

The performances are universally terrific. Armie Hammer is a hoot playing both Winklevosses -- through the magic of CGI -- portraying basically decent young men trapped by the arrogance of the bubble of entitlement in which they've lived their whole lives.

And Justin Timberlake has a sly, scene-stealing turn as Sean Parker, the rogue entrepreneur behind music-sharing site Napster. Parker gloms onto Mark like a metrosexual Rasputin, coaxing him into moving the fledgling operation out to Silicon Valley and whispering sweet nothings in his ear about becoming billionaires.

Eduardo wants to play it conservative, building Facebook through conventional advertising, but Sean senses that Mark is more of a social outcast at heart, longing to flip his middle finger at the establishment -- encouraging stunts like showing up to an investor's meeting in a bathrobe, or printing business cards that say, "I'm CEO, Bitch."

The final, compelling shot of "The Social Network" shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at his laptop on Facebook, hitting the refresh key in search of his Rosebud. It's an exquisite moment that reveals the character's interior better than any words could. What matters if it's true?

4 stars out of four

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