Judged on its ability to tell a convoluted story of intellectual property infringement and tort law violation without putting viewers to sleep, David Fincher's depiction of the founding of Facebook is a rousing success. "The Social Network" cleverly wraps the tale around the frame of the two lawsuits filed against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Yes, that Zuckerberg, who just donated a hundred million to the Newark school system.) The depositions of the plaintiffs — where they tell their sides of the story — serve to lead the viewer through the contradictory versions of what happened at Harvard in 2003 when Zuckerberg came up with, or stole, the brilliant idea that eventually led to the gazillion dollar company we all know today.
Judged, however, by its sense of character and nuance and insight into the way we live now, "The Social Network" is not so great. It's your basic brainiac vs. jocks high-school plot with computers as the lunchroom battlefield. But Aaron Sorkin's script is funny and engaging and gives the audience the opportunity to feel superior to someone who is way smarter and richer than any of us, so who‘s complaining?Actually, Zuckerberg may be, and he has cause. Based on the book by Ben Mezrich, this is a deeply unflattering portrait of a young man who is very well played by Jesse Eisenberg — Hollywood's nerd de jour — as a high-functioning misfit, someone who is so maladapted to normal social intercourse that he might be on the autism spectrum. And he's no sweet-tempered nerd, either; Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is petty, shallow, misogynistic, vindictive, and totally obsessed with getting into one of Harvard's private clubs. The film presents his development of the social networking site as one big gotcha to the cool kids who didn't invite him to sit at their table.
The opening scene tells us what we need to know about Mark. Even before the credits, we see him sitting in a bar with his girlfriend Erica, explaining why it's critical that he be invited to join a private club. His future depends on it, he says flatly, and what's more, she'll get something out of it too; he'll be inviting her to meet a caliber of people she'd have no access to otherwise. Fincher films the couple facing each other against a blurry, noisy background, as if to underline that Mark is able to focus intently, but on no more than one thing at a time. Erica becomes ever more annoyed as he continues to insult her and her academic abilities and breaks up with him. Finally alert to the fact that she's angry, Mark tries desperately to apologize, but when she makes it clear she's had enough, he goes back to his room and writes vulgar and offensive comments about her on his blog.
Although Erica, played with dignity by Rooney Mara, the actress Fincher chose to star in his version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," has another important short scene, "The Social Network" is clearly a boys' story, the sort where women are irrelevant except as motivation for men to do what they do — invent stuff, make money, win races, join clubs, run faster, harder, longer. In this Darwinian world, pretty girls are the payoff, nothing more nor less. One female associate at the law firm gives Mark some good advice, as a kind mommy would, but she just underlines how little Fincher thinks of and about women.
The Ivy League college girls who do little besides get high and wear stilettos are only one of the stereotypes that litter Sorkin's screenplay. There's a strong whiff of anti-Semitism, as well. Zuckerberg's antagonists are the "Winkel-vii" twins, two crew-rowing Adonises who recruit him to help them set up an exclusive Internet network for Harvard students. These two (played by Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) exhibit all the aristocratic graces that Zuckerberg conspicuously lacks. Not only are they polite and gracious, they believe in a code of conduct that precludes them from something as crass as court action — at least, for a while. Fincher contrasts a soiree at a club that the Winklevoss twins would belong to — beautiful women, wood paneling, well-dressed men out of a Ralph Lauren ad — with a Caribbean-theme party at Zuckerberg's Jewish fraternity house, which looks like the tacky affair you'd expect in a high-school gymnasium. There's not a lot of talk about Zuckerberg's being Jewish, but it's hard to ignore the subtext, especially when Erica asks sarcastically what part of Long Island he‘s from.
The other plaintiff is Zuckerberg's former best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), the fledgling company's CFO. Once Facebook takes off, the gentle Eduardo is pushed out through the connivance of Napster founder Sean Parker and some venture capitalists, or so the film implies. Justin Timberlake plays Parker with a lot of verve and sass. The opposite of Mark, he's a swaggering party animal and first-class hustler. He convinces Mark to move to Palo Alto while Eduardo remains in New York, and Zuckerberg never looks back.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails wrote the soundtrack, but the last song is the Beatles' "Baby, You're a Rich Man." That says it all.