Review: 'The Social Network': The Tale of Our Time

Review: Justin Timberlake, Jesse Eisenberg shine in "The Social Network."

September 24, 2010, 3:53 AM

Sept. 24, 2010 — -- I'll admit it: I initially scoffed at the idea of a Facebook movie. How riveting could a film about a Web site whose features include a nagging "People You May Know" window and a game based on buying fake farm animals be?

Incredibly, it turns out. "The Social Network," which premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival and opens nationwide Oct. 1, is an epic tour de force about the people behind the site that defines our time. There's backstabbing and betrayal, there's tragedy and triumph. There are heroes, there are villains. "The Social Network" is not simply a movie about a Web site. It is a movie about people and the great lengths to which they go in their quest for power.

Anyone who has Googled Facebook knows the story: High achieving Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg founds a game-changing social networking site, gets absurdly rich, gets sued. But as James Cameron did with "Titanic," director David Fincher ("Fight Club") and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") make the movie riveting despite the fact that most people know what happens in the end. Unlike that ocean liner, this ship sails on strong.

As Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg offers up a must-see performance. A dead ringer for the mop-haired mogul, Eisenberg inhabits the role of a status-hungry geek-turned-larger-than-life billionaire to perfection. Sorkin's swift hand gives Eisenberg the sniveling, slightly sinister tone of a genius who speaks faster than he thinks and thinks at the speed of light. He's not a run-of-the-mill bookworm. He's an aggressive nerd bent on world domination.

The real-life Zuckerberg has dismissed "The Social Network," based on the book, "The Accidental Billionaires," as a work of fiction. It's no wonder. According to the movie, he's an obsessive workaholic with a borderline personality disorder.

At the beginning of the movie, Erica Albright, Zuckerberg's soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, played by "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Rooney Mara, laments that "dating you is like dating a Stairmaster." Undeterred, Zuckerberg charges on, belittling Albright's Boston University education until she breaks down and breaks up with him.

"You're going to go through life thinking girls won't like you because you're a nerd, and I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that's not true," Albright says. "Girls won't like you because you're an a**hole."

Indeed, for much of "The Social Network," that's exactly what Zuckerberg is. After Albright dumps him, he flames her on his blog, then muses about making a site that compares girls to farm animals. (Ironic that Farmville is one of Facebook's most popular applications, isn't it?)

Later, demanding that his programmers shut out the outside world to further the future of Facebook, he verges on dictatorial, a Machiavelli for the Internet age. In Zuckerberg's mind, the ends justify the means: Losing his girlfriend, enraging his classmates and alienating his best friend turned Facebook co-founder are all necessary steps to gaining power, the prize that Zuckerberg craves.

"The Social Network" isn't all computers and coding. From a production standpoint, it's sumptuous. Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor teamed with composer Atticus Ross to create a throbbing soundtrack that infuses drama into sequences that might otherwise be mundane.

Attention to detail abounds. While Harvard's campus might seem slightly more attractive in the film than in real life, "The Social Network" stays true to the tone of the school, down to a "Beat Cornell" proclamation written in snow on the back of a car.

Fincher has made sure there are plenty of pleasing characters to take in, like Justin Timberlake, who exudes sexy arrogance in his portrayal of Napster founder Sean Parker. The first time Timberlake comes on screen, he's shirtless with a girl on top of him (of course).

But he's more than meets the eye: Conniving and cloying, at times, Timberlake's Parker is downright evil, willing to do and say anything to get on Facebook's payroll. "Look at my face and tell me I don't know what I'm talking about," Parker tells Zuckerberg at a nightclub, multi-colored lights contorting his face like a monster's.

Then there's Andrew Garfield, the soon-to-be Spider-Man who plays Eduardo Saverin, Facebook's co-founder and Zuckerberg's only friend. Garfield's Saverin is a smart, sweet heartthrob, a could've-been, would've-been household name who gets steamrolled by Zuckerberg when his plans for Facebook outpace Saverin's conceptions of what a social network can be. Garfield proves he can play a loyal confidant as well as he can a stabbed-in-the-back best friend: His fits of rage prompt the sort of fist-clenching usually reserved for thrillers.

But then, "The Social Network" is a thriller in its own way. It's mind boggling to think that a Web site that was launched seven years ago now occupies the kind of status in society usually set aside for life staples like cars and microwaves. To some, Facebook is as essential as those necessities, if not more so.

In reality, the fake Mark Zuckerberg got his wish: power. And the movie that tells the story of how he obtained it is no less awe-inspiring.

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