They'll call it a film that defines a generation, and it's hard to tell whether or not that's a good thing. With The Social Network, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin turn some fairly dry, nerdy content about fairly dry, nerdy characters into one of the must-see films of the year, and they don't waste any time getting right to it. The film opens with what will go down as one of the great break-up scenes of all time, and from there Fincher rides Sorkin's hilariously addictive script like a wild bull at a rodeo. It moves fast like a manic internet surfer, and it never really lets you catch your breath. It's a film about connecting, except you won't really connect with anyone. After all, this is a generation that has more virtual friends than real-life friends. You know ... on Facebook.
This is an emotionless generation; one taught that it's much better to sue than get your cry on. It's a generation that wants to make more money than its neighbor; to think with numbers rather than emotion. A generation that needs it all right now at their fingertips, and anything less just isn't good enough. They're spoiled and they're hard to sympathize with, but they're changing the world one megabyte at a time and it's kinda fun to watch. So is The Social Network.
With a lot of help from Sorkin's (potentially Oscar-worthy) script, David Fincher has crafted his most humorous film since Fight Club. It's a lot more accessible and relatable than his 1999 wickedly dark dramedy, though, and during an awards season that may be packed with bizarre psychological head-trips and horrific, stomach-churning set pieces, The Social Network -- with its built-in audience of 500 million-plus -- may creep to the top of the pack as a certifiable fan favorite.
When we first meet Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), he's desparately trying not to fail. Zuckerberg isn't used to failing; in fact, when you take into consideration that he was offered a ridiculously lucrative job at Microsoft before he graduated high school and went to Harvard, one might argue that Zuckerberg never failed at anything. Except when it comes to communicating with the opposite sex, and preserving his relationship with Erica (Rooney Mara), who's had just about enough of Zuckerberg's absurd, emotionless attitude toward life. Before his brain can compute the tricky, relationship-related conversation he's found himself in with Erica at some random college bar surrounded by random college-aged faces, Zuckerberg has failed. He's finally met his match, and she never wants to see him again. Thus begins Mark Zuckerberg's mission to never fail at anything ever again.
From this point, Fincher and Sorkin accelerate through the real-life events that led to the forming of Facebook, one of the largest social networks that currently exists online. Zuckerberg, bruised and battered after his break-up with Erica, gets drunk and creates a website called Facemash that allows students to vote on whether their female peers are hot or not. This, of course, lands him in hot water after the site explodes across campus, crashing Harvard's servers, but it only adds more fuel to Mark's fire. Heck, if Facemash could attract that many people in such a short amount of time, surely there was something more ... tasteful that could do the same thing.
While Mark drowns his relationship sorrows in computer code (while slowly becoming a campus celebrity because of Facemash), his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) is going about things at Harvard the old fashioned way: by trying to secure a spot in one of the campus' elite all-male "Final Clubs", which are sort of like fraterities for the rich and powerful. Eduardo figures that joining a Final Club will not only get him laid, but it'll also look great when he's applying for jobs after graduation. Eduardo may think Mark's dorm room website ideas are cute and clever time-wasters, but in the end he's expected to leave Harvard with a lucrative suit-and-tie job back in New York.
Thing is, it's 2004, and these "social network" websites like Facemash, Friendster and Myspace are quickly becoming the hot new thing. Twin brothers (and fellow Harvard students/potential Olympic crew teammates) Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, Josh Prince) come up with their own website idea and attempt to bring Mark into the fold to do all the programming. Mark, however, has other plans -- and with Eduardo by his side to help fund his new venture off money he made investing, Mark spins the Winklevoss' ideas into his own creation called TheFacebook. Yeah, this can't end well.
The site takes off, spreading to the country's most elite college campuses faster than it takes the Winklevoss twins to realize that they've been had. Sprinkle on some dramatic lawsuits, wild partying, a list of people (including idea-hungry internet icon Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake) looking to break into TheFacebook on the ground floor, and the millions (if not billions) of dollars at stake, and you have the ingredients for a sensational true-life story. It's a story that made Ben Mezrich's feisty page-turner The Accidental Billionaires (which the film is based on) such a huge success, and though on paper it may feel like a story best left to a 60 Minutes episode, Fincher and Sorkin spin it into something that's deliciously watchable from the first frames.
There are sacrifices to be made here, however, and while the film's greatest strength is that it moves at a hip, brisk, pace, that's also its greatest weakness. Jesse Eisenberg turns out a terrific performance as Zuckerberg -- chock-full of awkward lip-biting and short, robotic-like outbursts of imagination -- but we're never able to connect with him or root for him since, in the end, it's hard to tell whether Zuckerberg was a hero or a villain. Sure, he may have unintentionally (or intentionally, we'll never know) screwed over his friends in order to feed his internet baby, but Fincher clicks through story points so fast and aggressively that we never find the time to care about friendships being lost, or dreams being crushed.
Fincher makes up for the lack of character development by getting creative with the way he unravels the story, bouncing back and forth through time -- from court proceedings to clubs to college dorm rooms, beginning one line of dialogue in the past and then continuing it in the present -- slicing his way through scenes with speed and precision like a master chef. Both Garfield and Timberlake toss in decent-enough performances (Timberlake's short, buzzed-about, coke-snorting scene will let down those looking for more nudity and, well, coke snorting), and first-time movie scorer Trent Reznor adds a familiar (to Nine Inch Nails fans, anyway) dark, moody, metallic score that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Though you'll never expect it from a film like this, perhaps the greatest kudos should be given to the post-production team who used some of the most convincing face-replacement technology we've ever seen on screen so that Armie Hammer could play both Winklevoss twins (though Josh Prince technically lends his body to Tyler Winklevoss).
As with Facebook itself, you'll have fun observing The Social Network and all its moving parts, but it's very difficult to truly connect with -- or care much about -- its characters. Like that distant cousin three states over, or your old high school friends, you're interested in how their lives are playing out, but you follow them on Facebook so that you never actually have to interact with them ... outside of Facebook. The Social Network will define a generation for a generation that couldn't care less about its generation, but it's as entertaining as anything you'll watch all year.
See it with your friends ... if you actually have any real ones left.