You know that crazy, giddy feeling you get when you suddenly have a great idea and you scramble to find a pen to write it down? That silly sensation when you think you may have just heard something that could change your life so you scratch it out verbatim on your palm with a borrowed sharpie? The night I met my wife I sprinted home reciting her telephone number aloud all the way, desperate to get to my phone and dial her up before she slipped away. Well, welcome to The Social Network, David Fincher’s brilliant new film about the founder of Facebook (or The Facebook as it was originally conceived), a film that not only captures that feeling, but puts it on vivid display, warts and all.
Working from a breathtakingly crisp and…umm…smart script from Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), Fincher tells the story of ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ (Jesse Eisenberg), a nerdy Harvard undergrad who is too Einstein for his own good and definitely too glib for his own classmates. Reeling from a recent rejection from an equally sharp-tongued and glib co-ed (Rooney Mara, soon to be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, also Fincher), ‘Zuckerberg’ sits at his weapon of mass destruction (his laptop) and conjures up an online ‘game’ he calls “Facemash,” a site that uses a sophisticated mathematical algorithm to pair up female students based on “hotness” and the players get to choose who is hotter, the girl on the left or right. When the head of campus security (My Three Sons’ Barry Livingston) is awakened at 4am to learn that the school’s internet service has crashed, the messenger tells him their has been “unusual” traffic. He responds “Unusual? You mean for 4am?” to which he is told “Unusual for half time at the Super Bowl.”
Word spreads quickly around campus that the genius who pulled off such hijinks (22,000 hits in the first hour!) was ‘Zuckerberg’ and he is summoned to Harvard’s prestigious Porcellian House where a snobby pair of Adonis twins ‘Tyler’ and ‘Cameron Winklevoss’ (both played by Armie Hammer, great-grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer), pitch and enlist him on a social network idea called “Harvard Connection,” an idea that will capitalize on the coveted and “exclusive” Harvard pedigree of Harvard.edu and will serve as an online personal column, basically to meet chicks. Their big mistake? They wouldn’t let him past the “bike room” of their hallowed elitist sanctuary and consequently they must now suffer the vindictive wrath of the perpetually-slighted ‘Zuckerberg’ who above all else…absolutely hates being slighted.
What is so great about Fincher the filmmaker is how swiftly he moves forward in his storytelling, not so much because he doesn’t care if you can keep up, but rather refreshingly because he just assumes that you can. The non-linear aspect of the film initially requires audience readiness, but in no time the narrative is seamless and efficient. The story zigzags back and forth between two lawsuits being waged against ‘Zuckerberg’ – one from the ‘Winklevoss’ twins for intellectual piracy and the other from his business partner ‘Eduardo’ (Andrew Garfield, soon to be Spiderman!) for breach of contract – but the narrative never suffers from the jump cuts. The procedural hearings of back-and-forth ping-pong between ‘Zuckerberg’ and the various attorneys offer great insight into not only the depth of his intellect, but the take-no-prisoners harshness of his soul.
Much like Fincher’s rich and complex Zodiac (2008), The Social Network capitalizes on too-good-to-to-be-true casting. I couldn’t help but ponder while watching last year’s The Wrestler, what Darren Aronofsky would have done had he not been able to bag Mickey Rourke. Well, I’m not altogether certain The Social Network could have been made without Jesse Eisenberg. I know, I know, Michael Cera is equally clever and nerdy, not to mention a serious resemblance – and after watching him in Youth in Revolt (2009) he may even have a comparable dark side – but he does not have the necessary believable emotional detachment that Eisenberg fixes to his wounded and self-loathing characters. Cera always looks as if someone just stole his lunch money.
Fincher’s major accomplishment here, considering the brainiac subject matter and the challenge of making it cinematic, is that he and Sorkin boil down the motivations of this, at times, seemingly nefarious and ultra ambitious mastermind to the banal elementary desire to be popular and get girls.
‘Zuckerberg’ sees the perks of his newfound popularity due to his “Facemash” triumph, and while ‘Eduardo’ wants to proceed cautiously (“We have groupies!”) by pursuing advertising possibilities, ‘Zuckerberg’ tells him with zealous wisdom “Fashion is never finished.” His trajectory is further crystalized when he then spots his ‘ex’ (Mara), from the film’s deliriously witty opening scene. He obsessively needs to heal his wound from her rejection, but when she chastises him in front of a table full of peers and tells him snidely to “have fun with your video game,” rather than exit with his tail between his legs he turns to ‘Eduardo’ and says with a new purpose: “We have to expand.”
Enter Justin Timberlake as Napster founder ‘Sean Parker.’ The Facebook has now blown up and once ‘Parker’ gets wind of the concept, he wants in. ‘Zuckerberg’ now has a chance to get what he really wants out of all this, cuz while he may – with great certainty – always be the smartest guy in the room, he is not sexy or cool. Timberlake, I mean ‘Parker,’ is both. His initial contribution to the business plan is to drop the “The” and go simply with “Facebook – it’s cleaner.” He is also – amazingly – even more ambitious than ‘Zuckerberg,’ whose goal is to spread his social network to “100 schools.” Parker winks and says “I’ll put you on two continents.”
It’s those kind of moments that make this film crackle. The enthusiastic orgy of entrepreneurial spirit and boldness, for better or for worse. My prediction is, and this is for much better than worse, especially after such a lean few years deprived of intellectually stimulating films, the voting Academy will have a near impossible time ignoring The Social Network.