The Social Network is not only a great "talk-about" movie, it's one of those films that means different things to different people. Jake Cole's terrific review emphasizes the thematically revealing opening credits sequence that depicts Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) -- the future founder of Facebook, then an anonymous Harvard undergrad -- skulking across his vibrant campus, "showing all the interesting sites and people Mark could be interacting with instead of running home to blog." Jim Emerson pinpoints the scene prior to this, where the intellectually brilliant yet socially clueless Zuckerberg gets dumped by his exasperated girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), as a moment that dramatizes the movie's interest in codes: "academic codes of conduct, legal codes, codes of honor between friends, entrenched hierarchical codes of the Eastern aristocracy, and of course the kinds of binary codes that developers can command...." Stephanie Zacharek interprets the same scene as bucking "the conventional wisdom that nerds and geeks are all really nice guys, just aching for a girl to give them a chance....in the Fincher/Sorkin version of the Facebook story, Zuckerberg doesn't change at all." Bill Ryan's less ecstatic but still positive assessment finds some flaws in the film that he attributes to Aaron Sorkin's grating writing style, yet acknowledges that it annoyed him "only three or four times in the course of the movie, which is about nineteen or twenty fewer than expected...." The early critiques of The Social Network have been so perceptive that I feel there's little left for me to do but highlight where I agree and where I don't.
Like Bill, I am not a Sorkin fan. While I probably agree with his politics at least seventy-five percent of the time (unlike, I suspect, Bill), the creator of The West Wing has, for my taste, an irritating tendency to polemicize at the expense of entertainment. His screenplay for The Social Network (loosely based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires) is shockingly politics-free, at least on the outside. An acid critique of online culture and its creators is couched in the narrative, and David Fincher is one of the few contemporary filmmakers with the panache to convey a theme visually without relying entirely on dialogue to spell it out. (This is pure speculation, but I'd love to know how many jabs at George W. Bush he excised from Sorkin's script.) Unlike the easily-lampooned style of The West Wing, which was fond of depicting rat-a-tat-tat conversations of people running down corridors, Fincher keeps his "wired in" characters appropriately immobilized -- Mark's facial expressions are so blank during human interaction he could be staring at a computer screen -- and Sorkin's zingers cut deeper as a result. The Social Network may have the poppiest dialogue since Paul Attanasio's in Quiz Show.
Truth be told, I've never been a great admirer of Fincher either. In films like Fight Club, he's always struck me as a gifted technocrat whose observations end up being rather facile. (His last movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was a departure in all the wrong ways -- a tedious piece of Ron Howard-like Oscar bait.) The Social Network, though, is about the facileness of Facebook's social interaction, and Sorkin's subject not only enhances Fincher's approach (along with his pacing), it puts the director in the unusual position of blunting a screenplay's derision. As Jake aforementioned review points out, The Social Network doesn't go soft on Zuckerberg; yet Fincher clearly finds a kindred spirit in this techie-visionary, and it has the odd effect of humanizing the character.
David Fincher was as much of an outsider in Hollywood as Mark Zuckerberg apparently was at Harvard. Yet after a rocky start (with Alien3, an initially maligned film that is now widely admired), he stuck to his vision and came out on top. Fincher sees Zuckerberg's career evolving in similar fashion while also maintaining Sorkin's critical thrust. When Mark lifts the idea of an online community from the privileged Winklevoss twins (both played, superbly, by Armie Hammer), or sells out his best friend and co-founder of "The Facebook" (as it was originally called) Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, who portrays intelligent naivete as well here as he did in The Red Riding Trilogy) in favor of the perspicacious though scheming Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, once again demonstrating astute screen presence), the movie leaves us appropriately conflicted. In the latter instance, Eduardo seems rightly outraged to be unceremoniously given the shaft; on the other hand, his old-school methods for promotion (e.g, courting East Coast advertisers) seem hopelessly dated for a product so revolutionary both Zuckerberg and Parker are reluctant to define it: "We don't know what it is yet," each says at different intervals, underlining a connection that kicks Eduardo to the curb. (Sean also comes up with the idea to "take out the 'the'" and call the site "(j)ust 'Facebook.' Flows better.")
The Social Network makes clear that the full impact of Facebook is still as yet undefined, but it's also skeptical about the virtues of an entity that evolved out of social ineptitude and misogyny. This is, of course, the movie's own creation myth (and, in the case of some poorly shaped scenes involving a pair of female Asian groupies, one that not always convinces). As with Quiz Show, though, The Social Network is the kind of fiction that has its own truth: the real Zuckerberg, for example, was reportedly in a fencing club; but it's sound narrative structure to leave that out of the movie in order to contrast his character with the athletic Winklevoss brothers. This also leads to Fincher's most enthralling (and mischievous) set-piece, a rowing race set to "In the Hall of the Mountain King" that got me laughing without knowing why. As Jake suggests, maybe it's the irony of depicting the studly, entitled Winklevosses brothers as losers -- foreshadowing their even greater defeat to a scrawny prick who doesn't eat, sleep, or dress for cold weather -- that makes the sequence so funny. At the same time, there's something deeply appealing about the rowing competition, elements of physical endeavor in the midst of nature that feel more real than anything concocted online. That said, The Social Network leaves an unmistakable sense of an old world giving way to a new one: Here I am, for example, punching text into my blog on a laptop keyboard; and here you are, reading it.
Jesse Eisenberg's phenomenal performance as Mark Zuckerberg proves once again that he's the kind of actor able to offer variations of the same performance without growing stale. He specializes in socially awkward shtick that can range from unsympathetic misanthropes (as in The Social Network or The Squid and the Whale) to resourceful sweethearts (Zombieland, Adventureland) and manages to hold your attention as either. Eisenberg plays another college undergrad -- and one of his nice guys -- in Solitary Man, but its modest support to an outsized performance from Michael Douglas, who delivers his most resonant work in years. Douglas stars as Ben Kalmen, once upon a time "the only honest car salesman in New York," now a has-been whose trail of corruption extends both professionally (illegal dealings that nearly landed him in jail) and personally (multiple affairs that leave him divorced). Now sixty, Ben is itching for a comeback, and he has both the ambition and a salesman's gift for gab to pull it off. Yet the movie is not a redemption story, but an edgy comedy about a character whose flaws run so deep he comes ever closer to self-destruction.
There's enough to like in Solitary Man that I can nearly overlook the fact that the main character doesn't track. It's revealed that the catalyst for Ben's money-swindling, skirt-chasing behavior was a troubling EKG exam that his doctor wants to take a closer look at. Granted, old people do weird things sometimes; yet it still seems like an awfully contrived reason to ruin your life. Moreover, another scene shows Ben advising his young protege Cheston (Eisenberg) that he learned how to pick up women back in college: So if Ben was always a heel, then how did he manage to stay faithful to his wife (Susan Sarandon, downplaying the blowziness for once) for so many years prior to his life-changing EKG? The movie should have either made Ben's health issues more serious (instead of a vague possibility that something is wrong), or else depicted him as always having been the way he is.
Still, Brian Koppelman's screenplay is savvy enough to overcome this flaw. (He also co-directed the film with David Levien.) Solitary Man is sympathetic toward its protagonist without making light of his transgressions. One turn of the plot, in particular, is extremely unexpected, and Michael Douglas shows brass balls in playing it. An often erratic actor with a long and fascinating career, Douglas is imaginative and go-for-broke here in a way he hasn't been since Wonder Boys. Not many famous stars his age (or any age) are willing to risk looking ridiculous, yet there he is in one scene at a college kegger, sporting a hilarious yellow t-shirt and trying desperately to pick up girls forty years his junior. The character is a shameless user of people -- whether his Park Avenue girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) or an old friend he hasn't seen in years (Danny DeVito, reuniting with Douglas for the first time since The War of the Roses), but Douglas gives him a dogged spirit that's oddly admirable. Solitary Man is largely free of the histrionics that typically make up this kind of character study. Ben remains on good terms with his ex-wife, for instance; and even his relationships that crumble are conveyed with pangs of regret. On the surface, Solitary Man would seem to have nothing in common with Crazy Heart, last year's glory-winning film for Jeff Bridges, yet all the way to its open-ended conclusion (which would have annoyed me had it not been so right) it too illuminates the motives and perils of changing in old age. It's a sharp little movie with a big performance.