Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rashida Jones, Josh Pence, Brenda Song, Malese Jow
Written by: Aaron Sorkin, based on a book by Ben Mezrich
Directed by: David Fincher
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language
Running Time: 121
Date: 24/09/2010

The Social Network (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tense Connection

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After the sweet, maudlin, Oscar-sludge of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher gets himself back on track with The Social Network, another of his meticulous explorations of dark souls, plunging ever darker and deeper. It's odd how perfectly Fincher has twisted the traditional "biopic" formula to fit his needs, but he has done it. It's perhaps even odder that Aaron Sorkin has written it, giving these miscreants and malcontents some of the most terrific dialogue of the year. Yet all of these misshapen odds and ends click together for one of the year's most satisfying films so far.

I've often written that Jesse Eisenberg is my favorite of any actor in his twenties, and here he proves that to the world with a knockout lead performance as Facebook developer Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg scrunches up his face and body as if he's protecting himself at all times from what will certainly be an attack. He's smart and angry, and -- when pushed -- brutally articulate. Mark begins his career at Harvard, setting up a website called "Facemash," which allows students to compare and rate girls on campus. To build it requires him to steal pictures from databases all over, and he does it all in one evening, while drunk, and manages to crash the school's server at 4 in the morning.

This act gets him a little attention, most of it bad, especially from the opposite sex and from the school's authority figures. So the identical twin athletes Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (played onscreen by Armie Hammer, with offscreen help by Josh Pence) and friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) approach him to help flesh out their idea for a campus dating site. Instead Mark cooks up an idea for a more complex social networking site that will eventually span every school in the country, and eventually anyone who wants to join. He enlists the aid of his best friend, business student Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

The movie is told from the point of view of two different depositions, one in which Eduardo is suing Mark, and the other in which the Winklevoss twins are suing Mark. Fincher differentiates these scenes with color and tone, and eventually it becomes clear that the Eduardo scenes are far more painful, rather than just inconvenient. The overall arc is not so much "rags-to-riches" as it is an "instant wealth" story. Fincher isn't attracted to that angle as much as this year's Middle Men was; he's more interested in finding out what Mark is really looking for through all this.

At some point, Mark finds himself drawn toward Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the infamous creator of Napster, who has all kinds of irresistible advice for Mark, and also attempts to cut Eduardo out of the picture. Though Parker is a whirlwind, he does not provide what Mark needs. That clue comes, "Rosebud"-like, in the film's snappy opening scene in which Mark miscommunicates with his cute girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) and loses her. He spends the rest of the film hoping to get her back, and this losing battle culminates in a final scene that's as good as any final scene in the past ten years.

What really strikes about The Social Network is how precise it all is. Despite the double-flashback structure, Fincher perfectly and playfully snaps it all together without a glitch or a hiccup. This complicated web of events and characters plays out clearly and engagingly in just two hours. Of all his films, it's perhaps closest to Zodiac (2007), wherein an endless number of steps and clues collect over the course of the film and add up to a little less than we had at the beginning. It's highly detailed, and while the details are fascinating at the moment, they wind up mattering hardly at all compared to the enormous losses felt by the lead character. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Zodiac's Robert Graysmith let their obsessions carry them along, and wind up empty.

Zuckerberg, of course, becomes incredibly wealthy, but throughout the course of the film, it's clear that he doesn't care much about that. What he does care about, and what makes him angry, is his complete misunderstanding and mishandling of human connections. His invention connects people in a new way, but it could be even less of a connection than having no connection at all. He has made one step forward and two steps back, and he's lonelier than ever before. That's what makes this film great.

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