Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg- credit Morton Merrick/Sony Pictures
In the lead-up to the Oscars, I’ve decided to review all 10 of the best picture nominees, or at least as many of them as I can get to before the awards.
Mark Zuckerberg is kind of a jerk. That is the message of David Fincher’s The Social Network, which plods along at the pace of an episode of The West Wing, but without any likable or interesting characters.
It isn’t a bad film; everything about it, from Fincher’s moody direction to the crystalline cinematography to the performances, is utterly professional filmcraft. Utterly professional and somewhat forgettable. It’s good, but so what? The defining scene of the film is the first; Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is being condescending to his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) and obsessing over getting into various Harvard social clubs. She kindly informs him- in a monologue that I quite liked- that he’s being a tool and shows him the door. The theme, driven home with the subtlety of a power drill, is that Zuckerberg is a socially inept social climber, obsessed with status and oblivious to the feelings of the people around him. Eisenberg is good in the role; his Zuckerberg has an obvious brilliance and detached intensity, and perhaps a touch of Aspergers. We follow our anti-hero through the palace intrigues of northeastern privilege as he takes up shop with a pair of glad handing frat boy twins (Armie Hammer), borrows their idea for a college social network, and then drops them to pursue it on his own.
I had a hard time caring about Zuckerberg’s conflicts, be they the intellectual property dispute with the aforementioned frat twins (who go crying to then Harvard president Larry Summers in an entertaining moment) or the tensions with his CFO and “only friend” Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay shines with Sorkin’s wit and ear for dialogue, but falls flat in a few important ways. Switching between flashback narratives and Zuckerberg’s deposition gives the story a little narrative structure, but not nearly enough. The film is full of ponderous moments- a gratuitous frat party montage, gratuitous slow motion rowing, and enough gratuitous mumbling in nightclubs for an episode of The Hills, but precious few authentic character moments. Zuckerberg is such an enigma that he can only be seen through the eyes of the other characters, but most of them seem to share his total lack of insight. There is not a single believable female character in the entire film, with the exception of Mara’s Erica Albright. Unfortunately, she isn’t given much to do, and only glides into the film on occasion to be the unobtainable prize. most of the other women in the film- a Victoria’s Secret model, assorted interns and co-eds, and Saverin’s trophy girlfriend- have scarcely enough personality to fill a Dixie cup. The other possible exception is Rashida Jones’ junior attorney, who functions as a stand in for the audience, stating flat out what we are supposed to be thinking. It’s a cute trick, but Sorkin is a better writer than that.
I also had a hard time caring if The Facebook was a success or not. Years after Iron Man proved that the trials and tribulations of research and development can be entertaining to watch, The Social Network reminds us that it can be tedious. (Rocket boots might have helped.) Injecting some much needed color to the picture is Justin Timberlake, who oozes charisma and superficial charm as Sean Parker, the party boy founder of Napster, who decides to take Zuckerberg under his wing and teach him how to be a real dot com narcissist. Parker is more interesting than the rest of the characters combined, manipulative, self centered, but infectiously enthusiastic. The performance is so big that it very nearly goes over the top, but by the middle of the film a little theatricality was a welcome respite.
Fincher and Sorkin should be given credit for making a story that must have seemed unfilmable not only understandable but also sometimes engaging. It’s a solid piece of filmmaking, well acted and well written, but ultimately not worthy of the hype. Would I watch it again? Sure. Would I stand in line for it? Probably not.
The end of the film is strangely anticlimactic; it seems to be reaching for a fall from grace end to Zuckerberg’s arc, but it doesn’t earn it. At the end of the day, everyone gets rich, no one learns a lesson, and our brilliant anti-hero comes into possession of the worlds largest collection of drunken party pics. If that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is.