Friday, October 1, 2010

A Comedy of Malice: David Fincher's The Social Network

David Fincher’s new movie, The Social Network, gives off an exhilarating buzz. With a tip-top script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War) that goes snap, crackle and pop, the picture has some of the razor-sharp timing of classic screwball comedy. But you’ll never make the mistake of confusing this movie for a romance. The Social Network – which is the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the billionaire founder of Facebook, the on-line social network that currently boasts over 500 million active users – is a movie about mercenary genius nerds. While the movie doesn’t celebrate their unethical guile, it does pretty far into the scheming brains of social outsiders who find devious ways to get on the inside. Just imagine Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) for the computer age.

Fincher and Sorkin aren’t out to make any claims about the value of Facebook; they’re more interested in the motivations of those who could have imagined it. Basing the story loosely on author Ben Mezrrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (2009), the biggest irony Fincher and Sorkin present is how Zuckerberg, who had but one friend – his Facebook business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) – and made many enemies (too numerous to count), could possibly set up such a social phenomenon. The irony is so rich and woven into the texture of the story that Fincher and Sorkin wisely let it simmer.

The film begins in 2003 with a beauty of an opening scene. In a crowded Boston club, Zuckerberg, an undergrad at Harvard, is having drinks with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), a Boston University student. While he pushes on her his need for getting into one of Harvard’s elite clubs, she tries to get him to chill. But the more she tries to calm his anxiety, the more he becomes belligerent with her. Within minutes, she breaks up with him in exasperation with the classic line, “Dating you is like dating a StairMaster.” But after she leaves the table in a huff, he whisks back to his room to begin blogging mean things about her (as well as other girls) that turns into an online campus contest of determining who’s hot and who’s not. His indignant desire to create an audience for his bruised ego sowed the seeds for what, in time, would become Facebook.

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg
But The Social Network does more than just trace one man’s dogged determination to be both a monumental jerk and the Master of the Universe. It’s also a sophisticated story of class conflict, loyalty and megalomania. Fincher and Sorkin tell a criss-crossing tale of how Zuckerberg ended up in a legal war with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who were twins and Harvard rowing champs. They initially sought out Zuckerberg to help them set up an exclusive matchmaking site for Harvard – until he slyly walked off with their template. The other suit involved Eduardo, who put up the initial funds for Facebook, but ended up being cut out of the spoils when Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), weaseled his way into the company. Fincher gets a number of emotional cross-currents going in the settlement scenes. While he scores high comedy off the Winklevoss’s profound disbelief that anyone – especially Zuckerberg – could leave them in the dust; the lawsuit with Eduardo has a cutting edge that reveals Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness. What’s most astonishing in these moments is seeing that Zuckerberg is largely oblivious to the harm he’s caused to that friendship. (Eduardo, however, did end up winning a sizable amount.)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg
I can’t see how the acting could have been any better in The Social Network. Jesse Eisenberg, who was remarkably sullen and hilarious in both The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Adventureland (2009), has taken his game to a whole new level here. If Ben Stiller has built a career on playing the outsider who can’t believe that anyone could possibly not accept him; Eisenberg portrays characters that seemingly don’t care what anyone believes. He already accepts that he’s the smartest guy in the room and if that makes him completely despicable, it’s something he’ll live with. But he’s not cold-hearted; only armoured. His genius as Zuckerberg is that he shows you the contours of that protective steel. Andrew Garfield gives Eduardo delicate shades of decency and na├»ve vulnerability.

If Eisenberg gives the picture a motor, Garfield gives it a soul. In portraying the pampered Winklevosses, Armie Hammer is part of a technical feat that is even more amazing than the Nicolas Cage twins in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). Fincher pulls off this wizardly stunt by never drawing attention to it. Hammer varies each brother so that you never guess that you’re watching the same actor. But Sorkin and Fincher achieve something even better with the Winklevosses. It would have been easy to make them the WASP villains up against the Jewish nerd, but that dynamic gets so underplayed that the Winklevosses are more like comic foils than bad guys. Justin Timberlake continues to show amazing dexterity as an actor. His haunted role as the reluctant killer in Alpha Dog (2007) transcended the pulpiness of the story. As Sean Parker, Timberlake revels in sleaze without ever condescending to it. Rooney Mara may only have a couple of scenes but she makes them count. She not only recognizes the kind of jerk she’s been putting up with, but she’s not above ultimately looking for friends on Zukerberg’s creation.

I find it hard to fathom how David Fincher has jumped such leaps and bounds as a director in recent years. His second film, Seven (1995), was an academic exercise in loathsomeness; while Fight Club (1999) was both smugly moronic and madly incoherent. His films were like wrecking machines. But beginning with Zodiac (2007), his epic chiller about a serial killer and the people who became obsessed with him, Fincher’s films began to reveal a cogent sensibility. Zodiac was light years from the prurience of Seven. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a largely underrated, beautifully composed meditation on the fragility of time with its lingering shadow of mortality, was a thoughtful and stirring examination of a life lived backwards. In all these pictures, Fincher found a way to wed his steely technical proficiency to a delicately layered humanism. But The Social Network is something else again. He's done something here that is completely original and uproarious. He’s made a small masterpiece out of the comedy of malice.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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