October 04, 2010

MOVIES: The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

I have never been a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg, mostly because he keeps playing roles that don't seem to suit him well. He's a chilly movie presence, not terribly likable, who seems to be a very smart person, yet he keeps playing lovably bumbling, rather inarticulate guys, and it's simply not convincing. But finally, in The Social Network, he's used correctly, playing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who is both whip-smart and utterly unlikable, and it's a spectacularly good performance.

It's true of any biographical movie, of course, that the actor is never actually playing Famous Person X so much as he's playing "Famous Person X," a version of the real thing whose personality has been shaped and edited for dramatic purposes, but that seems to be particularly true here. The book on which Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is partly based (different interviews with Fincher and Sorkin will tell you different things about the extent to which the book was the source) is an unusually unreliable work of "nonfiction," and both Zuckerberg and the PR folks at Facebook have made it clear that they don't think this version of the story is very accurate.

But setting aside historical accuracy, and judging the finished product solely as a movie, it's top-notch work. The cast spits out Sorkin's famously dense dialogue as it they've been doing it all their lives, and the performances are consistently fine. Eisenberg dominates the movie as Zuckerberg, whose inability to make or sustain friendships doesn't stop him from creating what has become the world's largest social networking site (if the movie has a serious flaw, it lies in pounding this irony home much harder than is necessary); he oozes arrogance and condescension, looking down on everyone he meets. Andrew Garfield, as Mark's best friend, who will ultimately be betrayed, gets all the layers right -- the giddy optimism as Facebook takes off, the immense patience required to be friends with someone so socially inept as Mark, the devastation when he realizes that he's been left behind.

Justin Timberlake turns on all of his considerable charm as Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley golden boy who seduces Mark with dreams of angel investors, venture capital, and someday being a billionaire; it's the liveliest performance in the movie, and should finally put an end to the idea that Timberlake only gets cast in movies for his name value. He's a seriously talented actor. Armie Hammer does fine work (with the help of some seamless technical wizardry) as both of the Winklevoss twins, patrician jocks who may have given Zuckerberg the ideas that he would eventually turn into Facebook; he gets to deliver some of Sorkin's best droll punchlines, and does so with great elegance and style.

I'm a bit baffled by the considerable chatter about the movie as some sort of era-defining document; for all of its flaws, it seems to me that the documentary Catfish says more about how we live in the Facebook era than The Social Network does. And of course, it must be taken with a massive grain of salt -- maybe a whole lick of it -- rather than as an accurate historical portrayal. But it gives us superb portrayals of interesting characters, and a sharp, crisply written story. It's a wildly entertaining movie.

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