Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Man on Film: The Social Network

Despite the fact that David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin were teaming up on this project, I approached this film with trepidation.  The seemingly universal rave reviews for the film couldn't outweigh the fact that the movie was about Facebook, and I couldn't reconcile the subject matter with a world in which that could be good film.

Well, my world has been turned upside-down.  Sure, David Fincher was at the helm, but heading into this film, he spent the last ten years directing Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  With the exception of Zodiac, I've not even been compelled to finish two of his last three films.  Fight Club was released just over 11 years ago.  Fincher has hardly been riding a red-hot comet of success into this release.

I should have trusted my main man, Aaron Sorkin, to deliver the goods though.  Sorkin's track record as a storyteller includes being the show-runner for the first three-and-a-half seasons of The West Wing and the short-lived but wonderful Sports Night, along with writing the screenplays for The American President, A Few Good Men, Malice, Charlie Wilson's War, and at least one incarnation of the upcoming adaptation of Moneyball.

What the teaming up of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher equates to is a compelling, occasionally funny, not especially flattering portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg.  Somewhat surprisingly, Jesse Eisenberg churns out a pretty damn good performance.  His schtick has been wearing as thin as Michael Cera's, only his films have been slightly less appealing than Cera's (I'll pretend that Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist never happened because I've never seen it, nor do I intend to).  Unlike many, I found Zombieland somewhat tedious, as it had a 20-minute lull in the middle of what was only an 80-minute movie, and Adventureland was a forgettable movie that managed to squander the presence of Ryan Reynolds and cast the mouth-breathing dullard Kristen Stewart as the romantic interest.  The Squid and the Whale was solid, but it is not rewatchable and is largely carried by the misogynistic turn by Jeff Daniels and the sublime/unexpected brilliance of Billy Baldwin (whose bare ass has no doubt been inadvertently emblazoned in your subconscious if you've seen Sliver even once, as every male who was a teen when I was can surely attest to). 

Here, though, Eisenberg gets to stretch his legs a bit, wriggling out from under the Poor Man's Michael Cera rock.  Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is an aloof, socially retarded*, prick.  The legal proceedings and the dinner with Rooney Mara (the younger sister of Kate Mara as Erica Albright) are where Jesse Eisenberg's performance really sets itself apart from his previous turns.  Moreover, it enables this film to stand as tall as it does.

*That marks what is likely the first time in the history of Inconsiderate Prick that retarded is used in a quasi-clinically correct/semi-inoffensive way.  If anyone takes offense here, they can go fuck themselves.  For serious.

That isn't to say there aren't other performances of note.  Justin Timberlake builds upon a somewhat surprising résumé as an actor with a scene-stealing, magnetic portrayal of Sean Parker.  As Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Andrew Garfield seems to set a permanence to the trajectory of his rising star with the likeable, vulnerable, and innocent characterization of a Zuckerberg casualty. 

Perhaps the most out-of-the-blue performance was that of Armie Hammer (great-grandson of industrialist and art collector, Armand Hammer*) as twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.  Getting to play each twin as one pulled against the other when dealing with the early stages of their conflict with Zuckerberg allows him to show range and channel both restraint and anger.

*Yes, that's where Arm & Hammer came from.

So far, I've spent a lot of time talking about performances while speaking little to the film itself.  The narrative deftly shifts through time, gradually parceling out the invention of Facebook, interspersed amongst scenes of the legal proceedings that would eventually follow.  Freed from chronology, the film dances back and forth through time, giving glimpses of what is to come while still playing its cards close to the chest.  

At its center though is the polarizing Mark Zuckerberg, and The Social Network manages to leave the viewer unsure as to how they feel about the main character.  In a world of consisting largely of different shades of gray, this is refreshing.  Sure, it is hardly an exercise in flattery, but The Social Network is not a villification either.  Perhaps the film could have delved into the privacy issues inherent in the nature of Facebook, but the film likely focused on the more narratively compelling aspects of the genesis of the site, ranging from dubious origin to legal tiffs to the intensely flawed figure at the center of it all.  While the film may not have the reach or social import that it could, it seems like Fincher and/or Sorkin made the right call in paring it down to what happened behind the scenes at the inception of Facebook.

This left them with a supremely satisfying film--one that I was not anticipating being that way.

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