Yes, The Social Network is entertaining. The dialogue sometimes crackles. It’s slick. It’s professional. I enjoyed it. Is it the best picture of the year? No, I don’t think so. It’s not even the best picture I saw this week. Therefore, no, I don’t think it’s the new Citizen Kane either. It’s a glib little morality tale dressed up in trendy togs, and it is to profundity what Facebook is to actual human interaction. But it’s undeniably appealing.
Assuming you aren’t living in a cave, you likely know that this new opus from David Fincher—working from a script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing)—is the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the founder (or co-founder or whatever) of Facebook. And it’s the film to see if you don’t want to suffer a violent loss of social status. Shrewdly structured as flashbacks built around a couple of lawsuits being brought against Zuckerberg, it’s essentially a pretty basic biopic of the old-school variety that’s made to look shiny and new because it involves a currently relevant topic. When you get down to it, there’s not much difference between Marie Curie (Greer Garson) discovering radium in Madame Curie (1943) and Zuckerberg having the lightbulb moment that spawned the “Relationship Status” aspect on Facebook—though radium may possibly be construed as more significant in the greater scheme of things.
This isn’t to say that The Social Network is lacking in perceptivity. It often is a fascinating look into a character with zero social skills creating an imaginary world (virtual, if you insist) in which it’s possible to have the illusion of relationships—and a sense of self-importance as concerns the minutiae of one’s daily life—without any of those messy personal encounters. That’s really what is at the center of the script’s interest, which isn’t all that surprising since Aaron Sorkin has openly expressed his disdain for Facebook and the whole concept of living online.
It’s also the perfect subject for David Fincher, whose greatest single trait as a filmmaker is a cool detachment from his characters, combined with a smugness that would do the film’s main character proud. Indeed, the most rewarding approach to the film—at least to me—is to view it as being almost a self-portrait of the filmmaker. This, however, presumes a level of depth I’m not convinced the movie actually possesses—except possibly by accident.
Nearly every character in the film—the ones based on real people and the ones made out of whole cloth to keep the narrative flowing—is drawn in strokes that are at once sharp and broad. Like a lot of great movie characters, they offer the sense of reality without ever really touching it. It’s all rather cleverly contrived to play like a nerd-empowerment fantasy—even if the head nerd in charge has been rightly diagnosed early on by his departing girlfriend (Rooney Mara) with, “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won’t be true: It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” Even so, the film plays its hand carefully as it positions the unlovable Zuckerberg as a kind of underdog, who bests the status quo of the privileged class—the über-Ivy League Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer)—by causing things “not to work out for them” as they’ve been taught it must. This is how to turn a billionaire into a populist “hero” at its finest.
It’s impossible to fault the film as entertainment—though it’s entertainment with a bitter core—and the performances are truly remarkable. Jesse Eisenberg has never been used to better effect, though it’s impossible to deny that he has a hard time holding the screen in the scenes where he’s up against Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker. But that is perhaps as it’s supposed to be, since Parker is more of a delusional three-ring-circus of a human being than the withdrawn—and almost uncomprehending—Zuckerberg could ever be.
Don’t get me wrong, The Social Network is a magnificent self-propelled construction, but I remain unconvinced of its actual greatness. As a snapshot that captures something of the times we live in, it does, however, exude an inescapable fascination. Whether or not that fascination is ultimately more important than playing Farmville or logging on to Facebook and complaining about how much your life sucks remains to be seen further down the road. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language.