Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Social Network

Every creation myth needs a devil.

Since its humble beginnings as a site allowing Harvard students to share information, Facebook has grown exponentially to become not only one of the most popular websites in the world, but also a key part of the fabric of everyday life for many of its 500 million users. The site has rarely been free of controversy, with many pointing to its potential for stalkerish voyeurism and the vaguely insiduous ways in which it gathers together the information of those that use it.

Given that Facebook is a somewhat creepy place fueled by its users' own jealousy, obsession, alienation and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, though perhaps I might be projecting there, it's only appropriate that The Social Network, the film that purports to tell the story of how the site was founded and the emotional and legal fallout that ensued, is a relentlessly creepy movie fueled by the negative emotions of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who co-founded Facebook with several of his friends whilst still a college student.

After getting spectacularly dumped by his girlfriend, Zuckerberg gets drunk and creates a site called "FaceMash" which allows Harvard students to compare women in their classes and say who is more attractive. The site is an instant success - and gets Zuckerberg into a whole lot of trouble - and leads Zuckerberg to develop an expanded version of the site, using money from his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to finance it.

From very early on, we know that things don't work out well for Zuckerberg and Saverin, at least in terms of their friendship. The story unfolds through testimony at several lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg - one from Saverin, one from a pair of rich twins (Armie Hammer) who say that they gave Zuckerberg the idea - and the film becomes about the way in which Zuckerberg, whilst becoming the centre of a company built on social interaction, became increasingly isolated and alone as a result of a combination of ambition, jealousy and betrayal. It's Citizen Kane with laptops.

Director David Fincher gives the film a verve and energy that a story about programming and lawsuits has no right to have.
The moody, subdued visuals of the film, perfectly complimented by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' sinister score, convey just the right amount of importance to make the story feel relevant, yet it never feels suffocatingly portentous. Every scene flows seamlessly into the next with nary a wasted second, and his crisp editing makes the two-hours fly by without ever feeling as if the film is outpacing its own information.

It helps that Fincher has found an unusual sparring partner in writer Aaron Sorkin, whose status updates are no doubt hilarious, slightly sappy and breathlessly wordy. Sorkin brings his signature verbosity to the story, delivering a script built around loping monologues, rapid fire back-and-forth and technical jargon woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. One of Sorkin's great skills, one which he honed over four years of almost single-handedly writing The West Wing, has always been his ability to make even the most complex, specialised concepts accessible and interesting. You could go into The Social Network knowing nothing of coding or legal matters (I certainly know little about either) and still be riveted by the relentless storytelling.

You'd also have a good time laughing at the frequently hilarious dialogue. This is a very funny movie with more jokes - and smarter jokes - than you'll find in most straight comedies released this year.

The film missteps slightly in its attempt to say that Zuckerberg was driven by his love for a girl, in doing so reducing a complicated and contradictory person - who is, as the film keeps reminding us, a bit of an asshole - into a lovesick kid, but that happens so late in the game that it doesn't affect the film too much.

Completing the set is a talented cast who are capable of keeping up with Sorkin's exhausting dialogue and are able to match Fincher's seriousness. Jesse Eisenberg should finally silence all those Michael Cera comparisons with his darkly humourous, awkward and arrogant take on Eisenberg. He fully explores the idea that Zuckerberg's desire to create Facebook was driven more by his feelings of envy and a desire to fit in with the popular kids, creating someone who is often repugnant but never less than fascinating. The film doesn't really have a hero, but Eduardo Saverin is the closest thing it has and Andrew Garfield captures Saverin's naivety and increasing feeling of being lost in the college scenes, as well as his steely resolve and bitter hatred in the legal discussions.

Justin Timberlake also puts in a great performance as Napster founder Sean Parker, who he imbues with a popstar magnetism that makes Zuckerberg's infatuation with him, to the detriment of his relationship with Saverin, feel only natural. If Timberlake's going to get the O in his EGOT, this is his best chance.

The Social Network is a film that is more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty spectacular to begin with. It's a furiously intelligent, entertaining piece of cinema full of indelible performances and pacing that most action films would kill for. It probably shouldn't be taken as a history lesson, a fact acknowledged in the dying moments of the film when Zuckerberg's lawyer (Rashida Jones) says that every deposition, a label which could also be used to describe the film, is 85% exaggeration and 15% lies, but as a character study it's exceptional.