There are three key components to The Social Network.
First, there is the Aaron Sorkin screenplay, which is about as Aaron Sorkin as Aaron Sorkin gets. The first scene of the film – perhaps the best scene in the film – is textbook A.S. A ping-pong match of lust, hope, hate, power, naïveté, and fear… lots of fear… between our anti-hero, “Mark Zuckerberg,” and The Girl Who Would Cause Facebook.
In that scene, we also get a taste of how Element Two, director David Fincher, is going to play it. Straight. And with the exception of 3 or 4 gorgeously indulgent flourishes, he services the screenplay here, first and last. There has never been a Fincher film like it, really. And it reminds is that with his skill set, he can do anything he wants.
The third element is the actors. And Jesse Eisenberg is the Olivier to Sorkin’s Shakespeare, the Bill Macy to his Mamet. Eisenberg has always been engaging, but he was born to this text, both indulging Sorkin’s detailed rhythms (and much of the great cast of West Wing did) and avoiding the trap of sing songing it. You never catch Eisenberg acting for a second, even though his character, Mark Zuckerberg, often is.
This is a very strong movie. A terrific story told as well as, I would think, it could be told.
But… what is missing is metaphor. And I will admit, I have read as many of the raves as I could find, from Foundas’ embargo breaker to this morning’s Dargis NYT review, and I find no evidence of the universality they feel about the film. I think it’s instructive that most have gone outside of the film itself, to their personal feelings about social networks as well as philosophy about humanity as reflected by a wired world, to make the connections. The film, simply, does not. It doesn’t actually make the slightest effort to do so.
The film is about a boy genius that feels like an outsider within his role as one of the most insider-y institutions on the planet, Harvard. The film, for all the expansion beyond Harvard that occurs, never gets very far outside of the tiny, tiny bubble. Even the blaring disco in San Francisco is reduced down to a two-person scene. Sex occurs in bathroom stalls, impersonally, two people to a stall. Moving to California means a house with 4 people imported from Harvard and 3 visitors who don’t get much attention. When Facebook gets some money and more staff and offices, scene take place in closed rooms with glass walls or with characters who are focused only on what is on their computers.
Is that the Great Irony? Is that the Big Point?
Doesn’t say Big Theme to me.
The reason why Fincher’s career top remains Fight Club is that Chuck Palahniuk gave him a Shakespearian tale of man’s fight against himself from which to fly… and fly he did. Sorkin, who is a true master of language and with very few exceptions, does not go much deeper than the skin, doesn’t give Fincher that kind of big picture to work with here.
For me, the most fascinating element of all of this is that it happened so fast, so recently, and so painlessly. But this isn’t really a part of the film. You can surmise it. But Sorkin, as usual, is all about the characters and not about the wake they create.
And as a character study, this is masterful stuff. Fincher’s lush imagery flattens out the vaudevillian in Sorkin just enough to keep the entire enterprise tethered to terra firma. Sorkin’s characters bring Fincher’s brown just enough helium to float above the dirt. It is a perfect pairing.
As noted before, Eisenberg is perfect. Andrew Garfield takes another difficult role – he has to play the straight man here, but must not ask for too much sympathy or demand more from Zuckerberg than his friendship – and finds just the right notes to make is flawless. Armie Hammer (who came from an even cushier berth than his character here) hits it out of the park as God-like, but myopic twins. It’s a pretty perfect cast from top to bottom. (I like Justin Timberlake in the film… but he has never felt like he isn’t on camera while he’s on camera.)
But the ultimate scene stealers of the film are Douglas Urbanski as Larry Summers and Dakota Johnson’s ass. The rest of Dakota Johnson is actually quite arresting as well… and I don’t mean that as a comment on her looks. She has something really interesting going on in her eyes and a slightly quirky look that portends great things in the future. She stands out in a very interesting way. (And now that I have looked her up on imdb, I get it… she’s Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson’s daughter. Completely makes sense.) I suspect that as years pass and we catch up with The Social Network on cable/satellite/internet, there will be “wow… she was in that?’ early performances for her and Rooney Mara. Anyway, Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth photograph her ass like it was the audience’s first ice cream cone.
I feel like I am on familiar 2010 ground here, a bit. Inception was the other film that I quite liked and also felt was being made into more than it is. In many ways, this film is St Elmo’s Fire for a next generation. After the first scene, Zuckerberg comes out of the bar/restaurant they were in and the crane shot looks almost exactly like the one early in S.E.F. They are both college bars shot romantically. But Fincher has the genius score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross playing. And as we proceed, this film is so much more than S.E.F.
Yet, it is not iconic in the way that S.E.F., unless, perhaps, you are on the outside judging these characters. Virtually every character in the film is, as Obama once said, above the audience’s pay grade, perhaps with the exception of bookend women of clarification, Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones, both of whom will clearly work themselves up into this pay grade.
Of course, St Elmo’s Fire seems like an insulting comparison. But it’s not meant to be. It’s the iconic intimacy of John Hughes’ best work. It’s the way William Goldman brought audiences into his stories. And then you get the more operatic writers, like Shakespeare and Paddy Chayefsky.
It seems to me that the filmmaker who would most perfectly fit this content would be Billy Wilder. This film really wants to be Sunset Blvd. Mark is Norma Desmond… Eduardo is Joe Gillis… Sean Parker is Max. But the thing that makes Sunset Blvd work so brilliantly is that there is clear context. The line between the silent movie past and the talkie future is not blurry. And as here, every character except Norma has conflicting motivations. Norma is driven – in a straight-forward, if psychotic way – by a world in her head that we can glimpse, but only she can really see… just like Mark.
What’s missing, I am afraid, in The Social Network are any real stakes for these characters. The audience responds to a character suggesting that people just move on to chase new ideas and not obsess on Facebook’s success because that character is saying what we, as an audience, are feeling. It’s as though the movie is counting on the ends justifying the means because the ultimate ends for Facebook are in the billions, not the millions. If Facebook was worth only $100 million now, yawn. But now that it’s valued at $25 billion, depth is – allegedly – infused. Not so much for me… though I certainly think there is depth to explore here.
I have seen all kinds of people imprint all kinds of ideas on what they see in this film. And that is a sign of quality work, absolutely. But while I don’t need it spelled out to me in giant block letters, I don’t think that the best movies are Rorschach tests. They may measure you as a person. But it’s a yes/no or multiple choice…not a fill in the blank. “Mark Zuckerberg” uses a computer, but his behavior does not define a generation. He is not Charlie Kane, who lived a life of gusto and real ambition before falling under the weight of his own power. The film might want him to be Bill McKay of The Candidate or Ben Braddock of The Graduate (whom I have compared Tyler Durden to), but unlike those characters, “Mark Zuckerberg” has never believed in anything enough to put himself at risk in a real way.
Perhaps it is my generation and older ones that will see “Mark Zuckerberg” as the next generation they fear… a disconnected, uninspired punk who uses his skills to get something he doesn’t even really appreciate simply to fill the giant gaping void in his ego and never really has to risk anything. Perhaps that unsympathetic view of “Zuckerberg” is what is inspiring the sense of depth… except I don’t think he is that simple and I don’t think, from watching the film, that Fincher or Sorkin thinks he is that simple.
For me, the idea that everyone around him is imprinting their desires on The Guy Who Can Deliver Something Cool and blaming him for not letting them have what they want is the road to a more complex, rewarding film. But the characters who are most on the road, the Winklevosses, are mocked for their behavior by the film, and in the end, whether they get money out of all the inconvenience of these events is of minor impact or importance.
Even the idea that Facebook was inspired by the rejection of a girl doesn’t really get explored enough to be real. It was, the film tells us, a confluence of events and people and choices, all of which conspire to bring a singular event to life. But it doesn’t really explore the randomness of that either. (Interestingly, Se7en did.)
I have spent a lot of words explaining why I don’t think The Social Network is a truly GREAT movie. But I want to write again… it is a tremendous entertainment for adults. It is an interesting story told with a tremendous skill set.
As I was driving away from the screening yesterday (my second look), I was struck with the idea of how movies get rated by critics and that there should be a more expansive scale. There should be a 1-10 star ranking for Fun Junky Films or 1-10 for High Quality Audience Films, or 10 for Seriously Ambitious Films.
The Social Network doesn’t have a Junky bone in its celluloid body. As a High Quality Audience Film, I’d give it a 10. Even Fincher’s forays into “Beautiful Huh?” feel more like a happy palette cleansing than something that should have been cut. It’s pretty perfect. Amongst Seriously Ambitious Films, I give it a 7.5. It’s not that I think it failed to deliver. I just feel as though it wasn’t ambitious enough to merit a higher rank on that scale.
The only people over 30 who I don’t think will enjoy The Social Network are the ones who are just uncomfortable spending any time with “Mark Zuckerberg.” And some will be out there. But they’ll be missing a really,really good movie.