CINEMA: The Un-Friendster

THE SOCIAL: NETWORK (2010, directed by David Fincher, 121 minutes, U.S)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I’ve heard a lot of people discuss this movie in the weeks running up to its release but nobody is using the film’s name. Instead, they’re calling it “The Facebook Movie.” But on its face The Social Network is hardly about Facebook at all; there ‘s precious little “friending” going on, no videos of cute kitties are posted and no one is seen begging for nails to build their barn on Farmville. But interest seems high because with 500 million Facebook users, boy billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is the God that created the space where so many live their virtual lives.

When we first meet Zuckerberg in the opening scene he is in the midst of an extremely uncomfortable date, and it’s not a first date, this is with someone who calls herself his girlfriend. Zuckerberg’s (in a flat-out brilliant performance by Jesse Eisenberg) inability to gauge his comment’s emotional impact on others makes him deliver condescending, almost cruel remarks without anticipating their impact. She sums up his exhausting presence, “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster” she says before she breaks up with him and walks out. Zuckerman goes back to his Harvard dorm and flames her by name on his Live Journal account. Drinking imported beer late into the night, his angry blogging leads to Zuckerberg hacking into school files to create a version of “Are You Hot or Not” using the I.D. pictures of Harvard co-eds. Academic probation follows and in the wake of his notoriety, Zuckerberg draws the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), a pair of twin upperclassmen who represent the type of old money and breeding perfection of which Zuckerman is openly envious. They’ve got an idea for what would be a proto-Facebook for Harvard students. They recruit Zuckerman, but rather than labor for their benefit, he takes the ball and runs with it, straight into the billions.

Director David Fincher, who in the past has studied deviant personalities in Seven and Fight Club, uses two court cases that were brought against Zuckerberg (detailed in the source material, Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction novel The Accidental Billionaires) to examine this sociopathic character and, by extension, why his creation appeals so strongly to our character as well. One court case is brought by the Winklevoss twins (or “The Winklevi” as Zuckerberg calls them), the other by Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield), the one-time Chief Financial Officer and former best friend of Zuckerberg.

As it turns out, the guy who invented modern friendship is a little short of true friends himself. Zuckerberg is a disdained nobody when he starts Facebook, its impetus being presumably to find a reasoned , logical way to connect with people, to forge relationships. But it becomes an idea with a life of its own, so seductive, addicting even, that every place it is introduced it catches fire. With polling suggesting that modern life has given us fewer intimates than ever before, Zuckerberg has tapped into our psyche to provide us what we really want deep down: companionship. In a trouble-free atmosphere that we can control with a mouse-click.

Eisenberg creates such a fully-dimensionally character, with the help of The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin’s script, that it is hard to see him as the villain he could so easily be painted (despite the fact that a young woman behind me was heard muttering to her friend, “He needs to be punched in the face.”). Despite his arrogance and insensitivity, Eisenberg imbues Zuckerberg with a wounded humanity. If he hadn’t stumbled into this pot of gold, maybe some nice young woman would have forced him to get in touch with his emotions, maybe like so many of us, he would overcome his self-absorbed adolescence and find a way to connect to the people around him. But as the story is told here, Zuckerberg is consumed with the idea, that a bit of source code that can be loaded into a computer and voilà: downloadable friends!

The idea makes him rich beyond imagination. Justin Timberlake arrives halfway through the film to give an oily charm to Napster founder Sean Perry, the Willie Wonka who presents Zuckerberg a life beyond the dark, oaken halls of Harvard. With nightclubs, Victoria’s Secret models and a religious belief in the concept of “cool” Parker shows Zuckerberg the luminescent Wonkaville of possibility that embodies the myth and promise of California. Zuckerberg is impressed by the ride but it doesn’t fulfill him. Despite bringing the world together in the name of cyber-friendship, he ends the movie with less friends than with which he started. The final moment is a beautiful updating of Charles Foster Kane’s fate in Citizen Kane, with the world lying at his feet, Zuckerberg can’t help but to yearn for Rosebud. Just like us, with profile page full of “friends” yet so few that we can actually touch.

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