(by Dustin Putman
"We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we're going to live on the Internet," cocksure Napster founder and newly-appointed Facebook president Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) portends in a scene from "The Social Network." In many ways, he's correct. In the seven short years since Facebook was conceived, it has become an online networking phenomenon, a natural part of our modern-day vernacular and, for many, a way of life. Based on the book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich, "The Social Network" chronicles the creation of Facebook by 19-year-old Harvard savant Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the rise of a multibillion-dollar corporation, and the sordid happenings—backstabbing, lawsuits, broken friendships—in between. A true story that nonetheless falls into conventional plotting—how many films have there been detailing an ambitious person's thirst for success and money and his sacrifice of respect and relationships to achieve them?—the picture is invigorated by a screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (2007's "Charlie Wilson's War") that is akin to a speed-running Mensa member. Aggressive, literate and nimble, it pile-drives its way through a narrative that informs and enlightens more than it surprises or impacts. Article continues below
If one can trust this adaptation's version of events, the catalyst for Facebook's genesis is Boston University undergrad Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who tires of Harvard boyfriend Mark Zuckerberg's arrogance and breaks up with him in a college bar. Angry and a little drunk, Mark returns to his dorm room to shoot off vehement blog posts about Erica and ends up compiling students' photo IDs hacked from Harvard's computer network to create a Hot-or-Not rating site called Facemash. Things spiral from there and, with the help of business partner and friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), programmer Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), and graphic artist Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel), Facebook is born. At first a social networking site for Harvard, it soon expands to surrounding colleges, and then to everyone.
"The Social Network" interweaves the events of 2003-2004 with deposition proceedings four years later from lawsuits filed by Eduardo Saverin, who saw his respective share of the company whittled down to almost nothing once Facebook hit the big time, and Nivya Darendra (Max Minghella) and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer in dual roles), who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea after they hired him to work on their similar Harvard Connection web site. The nonlinear approach to the narrative adds immediacy to the tale, as well as a newfound sense of foresight as the viewer catches a glimpse of how things are soon going to unravel for all parties involved. With that said, there isn't much tension in how everything is going to resolve itself. By the time Zuckerberg must deal with said lawsuits, he has become the youngest billionaire in the world and, thus, little is at stake. Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), a second-year associate on his legal team, urges him to swallow his pride and settle for $65-million. "For you that's the cost of a speeding ticket," she says.
Directed by David Fincher in a forceful but lower key than he is accustomed, "The Social Network" lacks the depth and fastidious research of 2007's "Zodiac" and the emotional power of 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Perhaps that goes with the territory of its subject matter, which doesn't have the added spice of a serial killer investigation and the years of historical documents of the former, or the dramatic potency of the latter with its rumination on life and death. With the exception of the flashback structure, the narrative is straightforward and matter-of-fact, as hopped up and jittery as a Red Bull addict. Keeping the momentum going is a fast-talking speech pattern adopted by most of the actors—it's as if they can't say what they're thinking quick enough—and some offbeat tech credits that compliment the goings-on. The cool, foreboding music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is especially welcome, shades of thriller-like darkness really increasing the intrigue factor.
One of the premiere go-to actors for nebbishy young men onscreen, Jesse Eisenberg (2009's "Zombieland") surpasses all expectations of what he's capable of as the brilliant but frustratingly snide and difficult Mark Zuckerberg. A protagonist who's far from likable but not wholly without conscience, he's so big-headed and intelligent that one enjoys following him—even if he's not someone to necessarily root for. A geek who happens to be an ace conniver, Zuckerberg alienates many of the friends and acquaintances around him. He recognizes this and maybe sort of regrets it, but that's not the same as doing something about it. Eisenberg is terrific as Zuckerberg, spiteful and funny. He's ably supported by Andrew Garfield, much stronger here than in the recent "Never Let Me Go" as betrayed friend Eduardo Severin; Justin Timberlake (2008's "The Love Guru"), better than he's ever been in a film as charismatic, cowardly Facebook adviser-turned-president Sean Parker; Rooney Mara (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street"), making a mark with limited screen time as Erica Albright, and Rashida Jones (2010's "Cop Out"), a sympathetic voice of reason as Marylin Delpy.
As skillfully made as "The Social Network" is, it misses the mark on being anything more than really good. As mentioned, consequences are low for Zuckerberg's action; financially no one can touch him, and he doesn't seem to have a problem (at least none that he's willing to admit) severing his relationships if it means making a name for himself. The film also lacks a three-act structure and, because of this, holds very few rises, crests and dips in action. Instead, it sort of runs from beginning to end in a straight line—one that holds your attention, sure, but doesn't really have any standout moments. Additionally, a subplot involving Eduardo's rocky courtship with possessive groupie Christy (Brenda Song) is undernourished and doesn't go anywhere of note. What "The Social Network" does get exactly right is the impending sense that what Zuckerberg and his crew are making is a game-changer, huge in the annals of Internet's history. One can feel that importance in every frame even as Zuckerberg himself starts to look like a fraud from the inside out. Marylin says it best in the sharp final scene: "You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be." Aiming for greatness and not quite making it, "The Social Network" will have to settle for solidly consistent. Most major studio releases should be so lucky.