Spite club

The Social Network

“Justin, are you friends with Britney?”

“Justin, are you friends with Britney?”

Rated 3.0

To be honest, that earnestly self-delighted trailer, with the heated-drama highlight reel and the choir singing Radiohead’s “Creep,” might have been all we needed. But with Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker, a script by Aaron Sorkin (from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires) and director David Fincher knowing he owes us one after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this online-culture origin myth might actually be a fun diversion.

Is it too soon? Probably, but life and all its weird facsimiles come at us so quickly nowadays, which is partly why you know you want to see The Social Network anyway: to process. On principle alone, the experience of the so-called Facebook movie is as recommendable as the experience of the site itself: Given such strenuous ubiquity, you might as well see what it’s all about. Besides, if there’s any subject that cinema, with its paradoxical mass intimacy, should be able to handle, it’s the freakish technological acceleration of social interaction and concomitant dissolution of human relations.

And who is responsible for that? All of us, yes. But who started it, and under what circumstances? The Social Network supplies Zuckerberg as an awkwardly tufthunting Harvard University sophomore, deservedly jilted by his chagrined safety-school girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and driven to harness the Internet for a pettily brilliant public despairing of social impotence. Human nature and elite-university entitlement being what they are, this prompts a palpable phenomenon, and soon enough comes monetization.

The guarded genius Zuckerberg necessarily runs afoul of several classmates—including, most significantly, his cautious de facto business partner and ostensible only friend Eduardo Saverin (the excellent Andrew Garfield), and twin proto-Olympian WASP supermen Cameron and Tyler Winkevoss (Armie Hammer, doubled digitally or bodily by Josh Pence), who, with their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), have an idea that Zuckerberg either steals or advances, depending on whom you ask. In any case, with timely help from Timberlake’s Parker, a knavish Mephisto to Zuckerberg’s nerdy Faust, the accidental billionaire’s actions prove actionable.

There’s a mesmerizing satisfaction to be had from recognizing the appropriateness of this material for its makers. It’s for the best that The Social Network will supplant The West Wing as the apotheosis of Sorkin’s smug, windy style. As usual, he indicates “smartness” as never being at a loss for words, and having ideas at the ready more rapidly than natural conversation can accommodate them. That’s also a way to code for distancing arrogance, as Eisenberg very shrewdly understands. Limiting his range of expression to the narrowest possible spectrum of visible emotion, he still parses the Sorkin-speak with alarming, abetting fluency. The priority here is not flattery, but something closer to its opposite, and maybe a deliberately patronizing mode of pity.

There is also a certain trumping up that is the screen-dramatist’s prerogative. Quick, toss me the Harvard student handbook, for I believe there’s a point in our code of conduct by which to ensnare the bastard! Quick, get out of that shower you just stepped into and debrief me on this captivating and heretofore unfamiliar website! Notes like these sound especially false when played by a director historically more convincing as a technician than a humanist. The Social Network works much better when playing unabashedly into the characteristic Fincherian chill. Certainly it displays a more Fitzgeraldian consciousness of class than Fincher managed in Benjamin Button, which actually did originate in a story by Fitzgerald. But who cares if the bright young things don’t read old books anymore anyway?

For all its real enough ideas—about young people making jobs instead of taking them, about the end of the old privacy and the beginning of a new obscurity—The Social Network falls short of full articulation. You sense a stymied older generation passive-aggressively handing off the baton of cultural canniness to a savvy younger one by piping up as the gloating litanist of callow missteps. The narrative spine of this film, after all, is a series of depositions. Sorkin and Fincher neither rue nor celebrate the Facebookers’ achievement, but simply graft it onto the shopworn archetypal framework of an ambition-driven morality tale. This isn’t a brave new world but actually a craven one, explained away as reassuringly as possible with a same old story.