The word “friend” is thrown around quite liberally in The Social Network, begging the question: what is a “friend”? Is it simply “one attached to another by affection or esteem” as Webster concisely puts it? In a digital age where who/what we do/don't like is defined by the click of a mouse, are our friends really our friends? The Social Network suggests that Webster may need an update.
Another word whose ambiguity the film underlines is “asshole”, usually in reference to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the film's central character and the real-life founder of the ubiquitous Facebook. We first meet Zuckerberg as a Harvard undergrad with his soon-to-be ex girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in a student pub, having a conversation that quickly and hilariously deteriorates into an ugly breakup. Hurt and slightly drunk, he retreats to his trusty computers and vents his pain with a mean-spirited blog post and by launching an insensitive website that's an instant hit, crashes the Harvard system, and earns him all kinds of notoriety. An elite student club soon beckons him to create a social networking site exclusively for Harvard students, not realizing that this kernel of an idea would snowball into the global phenomenon of Facebook under Zuckerberg's name. But while his ambitious project keeps amassing friends by the hundreds of thousands, he's slowly letting his only true friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), slip away, a point vividly made in the film's heated emotional climax. Why does Mark do the things that he does, and say the things that he says? Is he really such an “asshole”? Or could it all be a tragically misguided cry for attention?
Some may get hung up on the historical accuracy of the film (no one for sure knows the true story), but that would be missing the point. It's not a biopic. It can get away with taking creative liberties because of its unimpeachable trifecta of fine writing, intelligent direction, and authentic acting.
The cast is tops across the board. Eisenberg gives a highly mannered yet nuanced performance as Zuckerberg, or rather, a quasi-alternate-universe projection of Zuckerberg. He doesn't try to do an imitation, but carves out a unique and complicated social outsider who seems to suffer from both an inferiority and superiority complex all at once. Andrew Garfield absolutely nails is role as Eduardo, who perhaps does come across as being a victim a bit too much in the script, but the performance feels real nonetheless. Even Justin Timberlake (a shrewd piece of stunt casting) is quite effective as Sean Parker, the disgraced Napster founder who tempts Zuckerberg with promises of prosperity and greatness. The character is slick, smarmy, but also highly paranoid, and Timberlake handles it with surprising ease. Rooney Mara also deserves mention for managing to convey in just a couple of scenes how her character has more insight than all of the programming prodigies described above, and applause to Armie Hammer for his convincing portayal of both Winklevoss twins (a la Nick Cage in Adaptation).
Give David Fincher credit for extracting such terrific performances from all. He lets every character have just the right amount of exposure, and paces the story as only an expert can (with the help of his excellent film editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, of course). It may not have an auteurial feel, but that's probably just as well.
Besides, if the movie has to belong to anyone, it's Aaron Sorkin. His screenplay slices through the perceived glory of the Internet with a cynical but perspicacious edge. True, online tools like Facebook have indeed revolutionized communication and redefined the global community (and despite having grown up well before it existed, I can no longer imagine my life without it), but it may also have diluted the importance of human values such as companionship, intimacy, and even common decency. One evil Sorkin highlights is how simple it is to insult someone for all the world to see from the safety of your own room, a hateful freedom that's exercised all too flippantly these days. But let's not forget his sense of humour. He wonderfully satirizes the obsession some people have with the Internet, particularly in one scene where Eduardo's psychotically clingy girlfriend (Brenda Song of Disney channel fame) urgently demands to know why his Relationship Status still says “single”. And then there's the delicious verbosity of his dialogue, which will surely delight any fans of his famous TV series The West Wing.
The ecstatic critical reaction to The Social Network as given it a shared front-runner status with The King's Speech as far as Oscar goes, but that's only for the moment. Remember that being the front-runner early on is usually NOT a good sign. The season is young. Still, I believe nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (could be Adapted or Original), and Editing are in the bag. Hopefully we'll see nods for Eisenberg and Garfield, but those aren't locks. Even less likely is a nomination for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' progressive techno score, which is oh-so deserving but doesn't stand a chance.
**** out of ****