Sunday, October 3, 2010

Awaiting Friend Confirmation (The Social Network and Solitary Man)

(Spoilers, etc.)

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 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.


Jason Bellamy said...

This is the first review I've read, but I'm not surprised to learn that people are taking different things from The Social Network. Can't wait to read more.

As for the rowing scene: I'm not so sure about it. From the very start of it I predicted the second-place finish as 'yet another time the Winklevi come up just short.' And so while the scene itself was fine, the follow up scene at the party took an awful long time to process, and then speech about the fairness of the fight seemed too on the nose. I'm not sure which element was off there or if the film even needed the whole sequence. But that's the only time the film didn't seem perfectly woven.

As for The Solitary Man ... I saw that one several months ago when it came out in the theaters and I liked it and intended to write about it. And I'm sad to say that either because of age or my work schedule this year that I'm finding that if I don't write about a film I have a lot of trouble remembering it. I mean, the short version is to say that everything you wrote rings true to me. But I also find myself thinking: "Mary-Louise Parker ... I really loved her performance or I couldn't stand it." I think it was the former, but I'm not sure.

As contrived as some elements of that plot were (the heart problems, the daughter manipulating Douglas' character, etc), at least the film got the big emotions right, which is to say that Douglas pays a price (over and over again, actually) for treating people badly. So many films give their main characters a "charming pass." His charming pass only gets him into trouble.

Jake said...

Thanks for the link, Craig. I'm glad Stephanie fleshed out a point I wanted to make but was afraid of being repetitious when I summed up the characters as frat boys. I like that she points out how the film smashes down "nice guy misogyny," wherein seemingly pleasant, awkward men vent a repulsive sexism by projecting onto women a simple-minded love for jocks over brains. I love that, instead of just walking off, Erica stops to make it clear that women won't reject Mark because he's a geek but an asshole. That's one of my favorite aspects of the film: that it points out Mark is just as slovenly, manipulative and egomaniacal as the rich kids he envies.

Craig said...


As for the rowing scene: I'm not so sure about it. From the very start of it I predicted the second-place finish as 'yet another time the Winklevi come up just short.' And so while the scene itself was fine, the follow up scene at the party took an awful long time to process, and then speech about the fairness of the fight seemed too on the nose.

Ah, it's my favorite scene in the movie. It doesn't "advance the plot" in the strictest sense, and yet it tells us everything we need to know: the Brothers Winklevoss (God, I love that name), perfect physical specimens, in their element, One With Nature....and still they lose. That, and on a purely cinematic level, it's Fincher at his most impish. I was laughing so hard trying to imagine what was in the script that could have possibly inspired such a set-piece ("EXT. LAKE - Winklevoss twins: They row"?), I barely heard the scene that immediately follows.


I like that she points out how the film smashes down "nice guy misogyny," wherein seemingly pleasant, awkward men vent a repulsive sexism by projecting onto women a simple-minded love for jocks over brains. I love that, instead of just walking off, Erica stops to make it clear that women won't reject Mark because he's a geek but an asshole. That's one of my favorite aspects of the film: that it points out Mark is just as slovenly, manipulative and egomaniacal as the rich kids he envies.

Yes, I'm a little surprised at how many reviews have touted the wounded dignity of the Winklevosses when, after all, the first time we meet them, they've rounded up a bunch of impressionable co-eds and gotten them high on Ecstasy. I like how Fincher crosscuts between the rich kids' party and the nerd horde's online revenge in Mark's dorm room, underlining that these are different versions of the same repellent behavior.

I do think Erica is somewhat wrong with her assessment, however. While it's believable that she is the kind of person who would reject an asshole like Mark, the movie makes perfectly clear (as does real life) that there are plenty of women who are drawn to them. In fact, it suggests that they may find an asshole attractive in spite of his being a nerd. Which is also why I don't really understand the distinction made by Rashida Jones at the end.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: It's not the rowing scene itself I have a problem with; though, again, while entertaining, it wasn't "needed." It's that the rowing scene makes the point and then there's a drawn out dialogue scene after it that takes forever to catch up to what the rowing scene already told us. So it's that sequence of scenes I have a problem with.

As for the final scene with Rashida Jones: I just got finished typing this on my blog (it was at my blog, right? um, yes, my blog) ... I think that scene is dangerous to take at face value for a number of reasons. For one, it's a contrivance, a nifty little way for Sorkin to bookend his film with observations on how much of an asshole Zuckerberg is or isn't. (The Rashida Jones character exists only to come in at the end and deliver that line.) Furthermore, Jones has seen first-hand evidence that Zuckerberg is an asshole and she's heard more evidence that backs it up. So to come away from that convinced that underneath it all he's a good guy is, well, misinformed and foolish logic, even if by chance she happens to be right.

I think the important element of the girlfriend's comment at the beginning isn't how it forecasts (or doesn't) his relationship with women. I think what's important is that it reveals that Zuckerberg's view of the world isn't reality. Zuckerberg actually has a very Fox Newsy tendency to him: building strawmen and then delighting in tearing them down. The girlfriend gets it out in the open: no, the problem is you. She's right. And even if Rashida Jones' character's words are accurate, and Zuckerberg isn't really an asshole underneath it all, the point is still the same: he's the problem.

Craig said...

Good point about the sequence of events following the rowing scene. However, I still disagree that the sequence isn't needed. One: without it The Social Network becomes a claustrophobically interior movie. Two: as David Denby pointed out in his review, it's juxtaposed against the dorm-room refuse out of which the Facebook revolution is born. Sure, we understand the distinctions between Zuckerberg and the Winklevi, but it's there that Fincher truly lets us see it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good point. No argument there.

Adam Zanzie said...

Fincher up until recently was an acquired taste for me. The first movie to completely turn me around on him was Zodiac, which I thought was one of the finest films of the decade. The Social Network is another. But I do share your mixed feelings towards Fight Club and TCCOBB.

Because this movie comes from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, I WAS expecting it to be perhaps a little more political... but if the script isn't very political I'm assuming it's because Mezrich's book didn't have any political edges of its own. I read the book before seeing the movie, and Sorkin basically did what Howard Hawks advised John Huston to do for The Maltese Falcon: shoot the book page by page. The book has minimal dialogue, but Sorkin basically took Mezrich's prose and turned it into dialogue for the characters--for example, when the Winkevosses compare themselves to the skeleton-costumed bullies from The Karate Kid. The only things Sorkin really invented were the opening scene in the bar (which was left to the imaginations of the readers of the book) and the nonlinear framing device (there were no legal sessions anywhere in the book). I think the screenplay is an improvement on the modest writing of the book, but then again I'm a sucker for Sorkin. Anyone out there love A Few Good Men as much as I do?

I think Jesse Eisenberg may be my favorite young actor as of late. I remember when Baumbasch's The Squid and the Whale came out when I was 15 and because I was having family problems of my own, I couldn't empathize more with his character in that film.

Haven't seen Solitary Man yet, but I remember when an angry feminist wrote a letter to Ebert complaining that he called Kim Cattrall a "sexoholic slut" in his Sex and the City 2 review, and Ebert's pricless response: "Damn! I received this too late to describe the Michael Douglas character in Solitary Man as a 'sexaholic slut.' Of course the dictionary says 'slut' is a word referring to a woman, but I am willing to bend the rules. Amazingly, according to the global word search on my computer, the SATC2 review is the first time I have ever used the word 'sexaholic.'"

Craig said...


You've got me interested in reading Mezrich's book. As for Sorkin's writing, I've always been hot and cold. But I did find A Few Good Men entertaining -- schematic, but in a fun way -- and was surprised by Cruise and Moore's chemistry. Apparently, the perfect screen partner for a prima donna is another one.

Solitary Man is worth seeing for the Douglas performance, as well as a story with at least one or two unexpected turns. I guess his character is a "sexaholic," though we see evidence of that on only one occasion. Most of the time he comes across as courageously embarrassing, failing to look younger than he is but too resilient to give a damn.