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Movies That Rule: The Social Network (2010)

Just when I said 2010 was a shithole of a year for movies, The Social Network came along and changed my expectations.  This is one of the best scripted, funniest, smartest movies to come along in quite awhile.  David Fincher (Se7en) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing” among other things) hit the jackpot with this story of Mark Zuckerberg, the 19-year old nerd who created Facebook out of his dorm room at Harvard and went on to become the youngest billionaire in the world.

I would’ve figured a movie about Mark Zuckerberg might be dull, but The Social Network is anything but.  It grooves along at the clip of a great thriller, easily weaving between present-day courtroom drama (where Zuckerberg is being sued by people who once considered him either friends or business accomplices) and the latter-day evolution of Facebook between 2003 and 2007.  Zuckerberg, wonderfully played by Jesse Eisenberg, a very underrated actor, is kind of out-there to say the least.  He’s practically a savant, someone like Bobby Fischer (thanks Mr. Ebert), who understands code the way some people understand chess or mathematics.  In Zuckerberg, we see shades of other film characters of recent years (from Raymond in Rain Man to John Nash in A Beautiful Mind) who are brilliant in many ways but still completely unable to connect with other people.

Writing computer code, I thought during the beginning sequences, has no right to be this interesting. Yet somehow David Fincher pulls us into this world of people who are experts at writing another language, one full of backslashes and gibberish combos of letters.  Does this sound dull?  It isn’t.  Before we realize it, we’re caught up in the action of Zuckerberg‘s everyday work creating Facebook.

Eisenberg, an awkward actor with ten times more depth than Michael Cera, a guy he was compared to after his amazing turn in Adventureland, embodies a necessary mix of strangeness and genius wonderfully to give us a thoroughly convincing performance.  We watch initially as Zuckerberg is rapidly thrust into the Harvard–and eventually the national–spotlight after creating Facebook.  We regard his friendship and business relationship with Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the original CFO of the network.  And eventually, Zuckerberg’s talked into going to Silicon Valley by Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) to make his billions many times over.

The film begin at Harvard in 2003 when Zuckerberg’s girlfriend/date (not sure which) calls him an asshole, flat out.  This scene is one of the funniest in the movie, and it shows the Facebook founder to be exactly as his date describes him.  He seems obsessed with status, mulling over which social “society” he must become a part of to be considered cool and achieve his life goals.  His thinking is scarily calculated, his speech leaving his mouth like a haze of machine-gun fire–group A is good, he ponders, but group B is better, yet, group A offers these benefits, while group B offers these. For the rest of the movie, Eisenberg will play this character to the fullest, talking fast, zig-zagging from point to point, leaving even the braniest thinkers scratching their heads.

The girl is nice at first, quietly asking questions, but he is unconcerned with her, pausing from his monologue only to insult her inability to keep up with his thinking patterns.   When she gets fed up and tells him to get bent, he goes back to his dorm room, gets plastered, blogs about how the girl is a bitch, and creates what ended up being the jumping-off point for Facebook.  It’s a rapid chain of events.  If someone wrote that description of the first twenty minutes of the film, I’d think he left at least two or three key events out.  You have to see it to believe it, but that’s how fast The Social Network moves.

The program Zuckerberg creates allows people to compare two Harvard women at a time and decide, with one click, which is sexier (the program was called Facemash).  You can only imagine where this leads.  Within hours, his program’s crashed the college’s server, gaining the attention of every geek, athlete, rich boy, sorority chick and feminist across the entire campus.  When the administration of the college goes to reprimand him, he tells them cockily that he did them a favor: he could probably help fix their serious bandwidth problem, he jokes.  The Harvard big-wigs do not enjoy this kind of sarcasm, but everyone else (and we the audience) finds it hilarious and fascinating.

The genius of the initial program he’s created, balls-drunk, no less, reminded me of a conversation in Private Parts, a bio-pic of Howard Stern.  Stern, known for pissing plenty of right-wingers off, was sort of impossible to turn off.  People who adored him could listen for 90 minutes; people who hated his lewdness (e.g. Fundamentalists) listened for almost twice that long.  The reason, his manager exclaims: “They can‘t wait to see what he‘s going to say next.” With this crude prototype for Facebook, Zuckerberg achieved the same status in about 1/1000th of the time span.  It was no surprise the frat boys in Boston loved it; yet, Harvard women who called the program (and its creator) a sexist piece of trash, couldn’t stop toying with the thing either, clicking through the site at the same rate as the men.  And consider this: even today, those who say they “hate” Facebook are on it just as much as the rest of us.  For a lot of us, it’s practically a drug.

Within days, Zuckerberg quickly finds himself invited to the foyer of one of the college’s most elite societies (i.e. a group of rich rowers and squash players who drink a lot).  Two brothers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), won’t let him inside their secret lair (a hilarious exchange revisits this point later), but they want to talk to him about creating a social networking program exclusively for Harvard students.  The two brothers, strapping star rowers collectively dubbed the Winklevi by Zuckerberg himself, give him a basic framework and ask for his assistance in building the program to be dubbed Harvard Connection.

Zuckerberg says he can do it.  It’s obvious that’s the last they’ll see of the whiz-kid.  After a slew of unreturned phone calls and e-mails, the Winklevi find, much to their chagrin, Facebook’s gone live at Harvard.  Within months, it’s expanding to other Boston colleges, Ivy League schools and up and down the West Coast.  And, today, you have a better chance of finding Facebook than you do clean drinking water in some countries.  The two brothers’ outrage provides 90% of the comedy in this film, especially when both plead with then-University president Larry Summers to take care of the problem.

For the first hour or so of the movie, Eduardo Saverin is Zuckerberg’s right-hand man, one of the few guys who seems to understand him and legitimately care for him.  He’s made chief-financial officer early on and finances most of the operation apparently out-of-pocket.  What we notice about Saverin right off the bat is not his cunning, but his empathy.  In fact, he seems far too normal to be mixed up in a somewhat cutthroat entrepreneurial gig.  We see about two-thirds of the way in that he should’ve cut Zuckerberg off monetarily long before he did and that he should’ve brought an attorney when he signed a contract with his one-time best friend when Facebook went corporate.

Saverin trusts his friend, and that’s his biggest mistake: Zuckerberg seems oblivious to the concept of loyalty and, while he demands it from his friends, he seems unable to be trustworthy himself.  To say Zuckerberg is a prick is an understatement, but he treats people badly almost without intention.  Facebook is all he thinks about, so when Eduardo Saverin eventually gets fucked over, we’re not sure Mark Zuckerberg even knew that it happened or why it happened.  “You should’ve read the contract,” he mumbles, confused, and goes back to typing within seconds.

In another scene, after he flippantly mentions to Saverin in their college apartment that he needs a large sum of cash to make Facebook even bigger, he walks into the other room without waiting for rebuttal (or even discussion) from his associate.  He simply demands things at the drop of a hat and takes off.  During many scenes, Zuckerberg comes up with ideas in split-seconds, disregarding everything around him.  Early in The Social Network, with an idea brewing in his mind, he walks out on a programming class and returns to his room and writes the code in just a few minutes (not without telling the professor the correct answer to a very difficult question he‘s just posed).  You know that “relationship status” thing on Facebook?  Zuckerberg thought that all up in just a few moments and executed the idea in the time it takes you to take a piss.

While we’re wrapped up in the story at this point, The Social Network needs a catalyst midway through to kick things up a notch.  This is Sean Parker.  The film might be very good without the appearance of Timberlake on screen, sure, but with his presence, the film enters a whole different dimension of awesome.  Parker talks scarily fast, but his words are measured, his spoken sentences perfectly constructed and all, to some extent, meaningful, even if we, like Saverin, get the impression he might be feeding us a raft of bullshit.  But you can’t help but be drawn to him the same way most people are.  After all, he knew how to talk Silicon Valley investors into giving them $500 million to get Facebook sailing; meanwhile, Saverin could hardly get New York tycoons to put up a fraction of that amount.

The Social Network fundamentally studies young people who talk fast (so. fucking. fast.), but think faster.  For instance, when we first meet Parker, his thought trail stops for no one because the guy truly conceives of ideas this quickly, spitting out proposal after proposal, suggestion after suggestion.  From all accounts, this might not be bullshit, even if we instinctively distrust people who talk like this.  (Would you trust a used car salesman, honestly?)  In real life, Parker is not just a risk-taker, but a surprisingly learned guy who’s pretty familiar with all topics, ranging from philosophy to technology.

Sean Parker, whose prowess is not 100% accurately portrayed in the film, is an extremely sharp thinker (a good Vanity Fair article makes this apparent).  Hacking into corporate mainframes by age sixteen, he was a kid who never really needed to learn about the real world from college professors.  He was starting businesses by the age many of us were finishing our freshman years of college.  He could spot talent a mile away and knew how to capitalize on it.  Even if the film sees him as a superficial bullshitter, especially when compared to Eduardo Saverin, we also begin to see why Parker is a success.  He’s conniving and aggressive and will, without a doubt, do whatever it takes to realize his goals.

“Drop the ‘the’” from Facebook,” he says casually at the end of their meeting with a cocky smirk.  It’s a simple idea, but undeniably brilliant.  He’s the kind of guy you think you see in movies a whole lot–he gets up from the table, leaving his best, simplest idea for last.  But really watch most movies with fast-talking businessmen, and you‘ll be able to see through the crap instantly.  Advertising execs in some bogus chick flick?  They‘re just spinning their wheels when they make these speeches.  Zuckerberg and Parker?  They‘re having a legit conversation.  In one quick phrase, Parker communicates the vast moat between what Facebook is and what it has the potential to be.  He even excitedly remarks that making a million dollars is dogshit, but making a billion dollars is “cool.”

The film takes its share of liberties with this part of the story.  We all know that it‘s way cooler that Parker discovers Facebook in some girl‘s dorm room after he‘s banged her than it is if he just found it surfing the internet in his boxers one Tuesday.  No meetings between Zuckerberg and him that took place in a conference room would be that interesting.  They’re more fun to watch if they occur in loud clubs over gin and tonics and a line of cocaine just a few strides away.

But we accept all of that because the booze-and-drugs excess never takes over the movie or eclipses Parker‘s obvious charisma.  In other words, Fincher is wise to pull the reins in when The Social Network threatens to turn into an idiotic party movie.  We’ve all known about Parker and his reputation for over a decade, and there‘s no reason to make the movie about his penchant for all-night ragers and slutty women.  We see him as a man of excess–he is–but then, so many intriguing figures in history were too; so maybe that’s what Fincher and Sorkin intended.  Whatever the case, even if Timberlake’s playing a character that isn’t “really” Sean Parker, the performance doesn‘t feel phony.

Like great chess players who can see 10 or 20 moves ahead, both Parker and Zuckerberg are pretty perceptive.  While one speaks, the other quietly processes, understanding the torrent of words coming from the other‘s mouth.  We see the excited nods on both sides of the table, and it’s really a hoot to watch.  While Eduardo Saverin is busily running numbers and finding holes in the business plan, Mark Zuckerberg has already crossed that bridge (or just avoided it altogether).  He seems scarily disinterested with the day-to-day bookkeeping bullshit.  He and Parker look at the project from a much broader perspective which eventually makes them ideal business partners and leaves Saverin out in the cold.

Even as the pair gets acquainted with venture capitalists in California, with Zuckerberg showing up to one meeting donning a bathrobe, there is always palpable excitement when Eisenberg and Timberlake share the screen.  Much of the credit here goes to Timberlake who is an electrifying presence in The Social Network.  As good as he was in the underrated Alpha Dog, he’s perfectly cast here, owning almost every scene he’s in.  In the end, it’s no surprise that Parker’s love for excess puts the company in jeopardy.  It’s again to Timberlake’s credit that, just from watching his flawless performance, we knew Parker would end up in dire straits, tossing himself and Facebook toward scandal. Though there might be other actors who could play Sean Parker convincingly, there aren’t any I’d rather watch in the role than Timberlake.

If I’ve focused too much on Sean Parker (I have), I should definitely point out that everything else about the picture is very good.  Little can be said about the deposition scenes except that they are exciting, effective, and they provide a needed break from “the rise of Facebook” story.  The attorneys talk like the sharks from “L.A. Law”, the kids suing Zuckerberg have pedestrian gripes–he stole my ideas, he stole my money, they whine–and in the end, we know Zuckerberg will pay well over $100 million to the plaintiffs.  While I found them tiresome in the beginning of the film, I got wrapped up in the “courtroom drama” near the end, and in some cases, found myself rooting against the people I felt like I should’ve been rooting for.

Mark Zuckerberg’s an asshole, but he’s protective of the work he’s done, I found myself thinking.  Why should two frat boys from Harvard get credit for an ‘idea’?  He did all of the work, he argues in the deposition scenes, and I found myself agreeing with him.  The Winklevi can’t do half the things Zuckerberg can.  Fincher crafts the story to make us feel exactly this way.  On celluloid, Zuckerberg’s a dick, but not half as terrible as we’d heard he was in real life.  Saverin, who ended up walking away with a fine chunk of change, is the only character we feel true sympathy for because he is so likable and decent (especially when you compare him to Parker and the Winklevi).

Yet, one second-year associate (a good bit performance from Rashida Jones) is especially smart, and spells the legal scenario out for Zuckerberg in layman‘s terms in the closing scenes.  To paraphrase her: whatever he pays to these people is a drop in the bucket, and if he ends up in a jury trial, he‘ll get slaughtered.  Zuckerberg is still the youngest billionaire in the world, making money hand-over-fist.  He had to write a couple of $65 million checks?  Big fucking deal.  He probably made that amount back tenfold in the next six months.  Then again, is he mad about losing money?  Or that other people are trying to snake the credit for something he knows he could’ve (and would’ve) built by himself?

The film is also wise to demonstrate that Mark Zuckerberg’s not a wholly happy person and that he probably never will be.  That‘s obviously the ultimate irony.  The guy who’s created the biggest social network in history is so socially awkward and, dressed like a dweeb/hobo in Adidas shower sandals and jeans (even during the “courtroom” scenes), can only connect with a handful of people who are as smart and twisted as him.  Even Sean Parker, who he trusted for so long and who seems as smart as Zuckerberg, is not necessarily a true friend.  The fast-talking character, who at one point serves as a mentor to Zuckerberg, eventually lets him down by being a cliché partier, something he didn‘t necessarily see early on.  The Social Network’s final lines (and its wonderful last scene) tie all of these predicaments together perfectly and cohesively.

So, why, with all the brilliant movies that’ve come out in the past six decades, do I pick this as a “best of the best” movie?  I dunno.  The movie is so well-scripted that it’s hard not to get at least a little bit excited when viewing it.  For two hours, few words, if any, are wasted.  The characters talk almost exclusively about business, only occasionally pausing to drink or do drugs.  Zuckerberg, Saverin and Parker are people worth making a movie about because they are naturally gifted and have interesting things to say about business and even about human relationships.  Sure, they’re sometimes miserable people.  But you’d still like to meet them and pick their brains.  And, face it, what would you really have to say to the cookie-cutter drones in movies like Life As We Know It?

Most of all, The Social Network has rejuvenated my interest in going to the movies again.  Few indie pics make it to my neck of the woods, so I’m sure I’m missing out on some ‘better‘ films that came out in 2010.  But if you’re going to hit up a 20-screen Carmike to see a movie (as I usually have to ) there isn’t a better movie to watch. I found it to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening pictures of recent years.

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