Review: 'The Social Network'

In the Harvard University conjured up in the film `The Social Network,' the campus that spawned Facebook is populated by overstuffed brains. To the score of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, it audibly throbs with possibility.

The most restless brain of all belongs to Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old whose motor mouth, cynicism, programming skills and obsessive desire to be included in the school's prestigious Final Clubs lead him to bring the world together through online social networking. In an exhausting opening scene that might as well be labeled `An Aaron Sorkin Joint,' Zuckerberg and his girlfriend verbally spar until he finally wears her down, prompting a sudden breakup.

"Dating you is like dating a StairMaster!" she tells him, before ditching the boy genius for good.

A frowning, sullen Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm room and blogs cruelly about her. Then, in a bravado few hours of Web activity the film giddily retraces, he creates "Facemash," a website for Harvard men to view and rate photos of their female classmates. Soon, Zuckerberg is a celebrity and a pariah at school. He's also mere weeks away from creating Facebook, the site that eventually will attract more than 500 million members.

As told by Sorkin's script and the energetic, yet controlled direction of David Fincher, the origin of Facebook is an ironic, yet inevitable one. Zuckerberg, played as an angry outsider by Jesse Eisenberg, is unable to connect with anyone but his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (a well-cast, sympathetic Andrew Garfield). That he'll create not just another social network, but the social network, ends up being unsurprising given Zuckerberg's desire for inclusion, his fierce intelligence and his near-superhuman force of will.

The young billionaire-to-be of the film, who'll help connect long-lost classmates, far-flung family members and (unfortunately) bosses and employees online, has little interest in the societal ramifications of his online creation. For the most part, so does the film.

Drunk as "The Social Network" is on the viral potential of ideas at the speed of the Web, even as it was in 2003 and 2004, it's more focused on the Internet's malleability as a metaphor for our all-too-human tendency to rationalize and re-write our own past.

Rather than pushing straight through as a chronological bio­pic, "Social Network" cleverly shifts between three time periods - the creation of Facebook and two later legal battles in 2007 and 2008 between Zuckerberg and others who had a role in its founding.

Fans of Sorkin's "The West Wing" won't be disappointed by the speed and intelligence of his script. It skillfully spins these time periods against each other, never slowing down to explain or dumb down the material.

Characters like Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss , twin rowers who enlist Zuckerberg to help build a social website and later find their ideas incorporated into his own project, come across as just as worthy of attention and sympathy as the Facebook founder. They also get the best exchange in the movie, a throwaway reference to "Karate Kid" so good it spins and sparkles for several moments past its delivery.

As Facebook grows quickly and turns into a global phenomenon, the film becomes less concerned with the macro impact on the world than with the deterioration of Zuckerberg and Saverin's friendship. There are the not-unexpected temptations of drugs, willing women and big money, as embodied by Justin Timberlake's portrayal of Napster founder Sean Parker, a partying hustler who inserts himself into the mix.

But the Facebook of the film isn't built with the lofty goals of connecting the world or giving everyone an online homestead. It's instead a way to impress attractive women and open doors to the most exclusive realms of old money and power, a high-tech projection of Mark Zuckerberg's own loneliness and single-mindedness.

It's that portrayal of Zuckerberg that becomes the chief flaw in an otherwise exceptionally entertaining and well-made film. According to Sorkin, it's by design that the movie doesn't show what made Zuckerberg what he is and that he's not overly sentimentalized in the typical way of biopics. But the portrayal overreaches.

The problem is that it doesn't jibe with the Zuckerberg so many followers of technology know; it's not the same goofy, boyish Mark Zuckerberg who taught Oprah how to access his site on national TV or the playfully whipsmart CEO who earnestly tried to inspire Web developers at 2007's South by Southwest Interactive to help his company transform the world. (It turns out they did.)

By making Zuckerberg a kind of Natural Born Coder, a near-sociopathic cybershark with no parents, no siblings, no grounding, the movie lets him off the hook as a one-note antihero who wins the Web but loses his heart in the process. He's the Terminator with l33t Perl-scripting skills.

"The Social Network" insists that Zuckerberg is perpetually on the outside looking in, that Emperor Mark remains unfulfilled and has no clothes.

It would be closer to the truth to say he has the world at his feet and a large walk-in closet full of Facebook-branded hoodies.

'The Social Network'

Our grade: B+

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 120 min

MPAA rating: PG-13

Release Date: Oct 1, 2010