Saturday, October 30, 2010

Zombie Mad Men: The Survival Guide

Earlier today, Matt Seitz tweeted about a dream he'd had that combined Mad Men with zombies, a not-so-odd amalgam when one considers AMC's relentless promotional buildup for The Walking Dead over the last few months. I haven't been privy to any early glimpses of the new horror series. But I do have a knack for overthinking anything concerning a certain fictional 1960s advertising agency, so I hope that Matt and his subconscious will forgive me if, in the spirit of the season, I shanghai his dream to entertain an important question: How would SCDP handle a zombie attack?

It goes without saying that the people of Mad Men are no strangers to violence. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and John Deere have all had an unshakable impact on their lives. But a terrifying "Tomorrow Zombieland"? That's a whole nother campaign, my friends. After all, it's 1965: three years before Night of the Living Dead, nearly forty before the publication of The Zombie Survival Guide. An agency like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce depends on policies and procedures for its day-to-day operations. Without any precedent, they would have no idea what they were in for or how to respond.

In terms of pure gumption, then, plus maybe a dollop of luck, the question stands: Which of our favorite characters would be most likely to survive?

1. Joan Harris

Strengths: Quick-thinking, practical, resourceful; experience with administering first aid; would not hesitate to shoot Zombie Roger in the head.

Weaknesses: Red dress may draw unwanted undead attention.

Survival Odds: Even.

2. Pete Campbell

Strengths: Weaselly, conniving; short enough to hide in ventilation shafts; known for bringing guns to the office.

Weaknesses: Capable of rash decisions; insecure masculinity; overeager to prove himself.

Survival Odds: 3-1.

3. Betty Draper Francis

Strengths: Utterly self-interested, would sacrifice children to save self; experienced with firearms; laser stare could melt zombie flesh.

Weaknesses: Firearms experience only BB gun variety.

Survival Odds: 5-1.

4. Peggy Olson

Strengths: Smart, savvy, spunky.

Weaknesses: Faints at sight of blood.

Survival Odds: 10-1.

5. Dick Whitman Don Draper

Strengths: Korean War veteran; smooth sales-pitch; handsome.

Weaknesses: Cracks under pressure; frequently traps himself in bathroom stalls; opportunistic, could willingly turn into a zombie.

Survival Odds: 15-1.

6. Lane Pryce

Strengths: Stiff upper-lip; could be secretly a Watcher like Buffy's Rupert Giles.

Weaknesses: Daddy issues; overwilling to avoid confrontation.

Survival Odds: 30-1.

7. Harry Crane

Strengths: None.

Weaknesses: Many.

Survival Odds: 50-1.

8. Roger Sterling

Strengths: World War II veteran; witty quips.

Weaknesses: Drunken staggering slows him down; has trouble navigating flights of stairs; could be easily bitten by Lee Garner, Jr.

Survival Odds: 75-1.

9. Glen

Strengths: Small enough to hide; would lay down his life for Sally; the most principled character on the show.

Weaknesses: Ground zero of zombie pandemic.

Survival Odds: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-1.

10. Megan

Strengths: Tall; pretty; good with kids.

Weaknesses: Possibly a bad wife, a scheming coworker, or a zombie. Time will tell.

Survival Odds: N/A.

Happy Halloween!

Baker Street Boys (Sherlock)

In recent years, the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes have been invariably better in concept than execution. The iconic standard set in the 1930s and 1940s by the teaming of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce shouldn't have been, to be honest, terribly difficult to equal or even surpass: nearly all are watchable (I'm partial to The Hound of the Baskervilles [1939]), none great; yet Rathbone and Bruce owned their roles so completely that subsequent interpretations have swung wildly -- often out of desperation -- to create something different. The Holmes-meets-Freud Seven-Percent-Solution (1976) has its moments, most of them (as I recall, it's been ages) belonging to Alan Arkin. But in the 80s, a pair of original spins that sounded great on paper -- Holmes as a teenager (Young Sherlock Holmes) and as a dunce (Without a Clue) -- were deadlier than a Moriarty plot and a lot duller. Last year, Guy Ritchie's film "reimagined" Holmes (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) as a slo-mo-punching, explosion-evading action hero, if that idea had anything to do with imagination.

So I groaned upon hearing that Sherlock, the new Masterpiece Mystery series on PBS, would update the detective's adventures to 21st century London. (This being originally British television, a "series" consists of three episodes.) I was wrong, though. Whereas Ritchie flopped bringing his hyped-up filmmaking style to a 19th-century tale, the creators of Sherlock (Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who collaborated on the revised Doctor Who) employ classical storytelling to depict Sherlock Holmes in the modern age. Last week's premiere episode, "A Study in Pink," moved at breakneck speed (rarely have eighty minutes felt like forty), but the tempo never felt strenuous. Indeed, in our era of texting and online searching (both of which are effortlessly brought into the story), the pacing seemed appropriate.

It also sidesteps the most irritating element in Doyle's books, frequently adapted to the screen: the parts where Holmes brings everything to a halt so he can belabor how he cracked the case and make Watson look like a fool. Those passages, which should be highlights, come across instead as the work of an intellectual sadist (Holmes and Doyle both). One of the best things about the new Sherlock is how little tolerance its main characters have for tiresome shenanigans. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) still has his violin and his flat on Baker Street, yet he moves fast and talks faster, spitting out reams of dialogue that resemble the staccato rhythms of an Aaron Sorkin script. A "consultant" to the police, Sherlock makes his unwelcome presence felt at a crime scene, talking smack with the detectives who think he's a psychopath and a freak ("I'm a high-level sociopath," he counters), and quickly moves on. As Holmes's new flatmate and partner on cases, Watson (Martin Freeman) initially follows with a limp and a cane (from an injury, possibly psychosomatic, suffered in Afghanistan), but his admiration for his cohort's brilliance stops short of blind devotion. Nor does the good doctor suffer fools: Brought to an ominous underground garage by a man who calls himself Holmes's archrival and shows disdain for Holmes's "over-reliance on dramatics," Watson counters by saying, "Because you're above that sort of thing."

Cumberbatch and Freeman make a splendidly witty team, neither too chummy nor too hostile toward each other. (Both actors are also on the rise -- Cumberbatch in Steven Spielberg's upcoming War Horse and Freeman to be the star of The Hobbit -- so enjoy them as relative unknowns while you can.) Although each character is allotted his own identity, what both have in common is an aversion to boredom. Holmes and Watson love the thrill of the chase, and the case in "A Study in Pink" is a pretty good one about a seemingly random string of suicides connected by an unusual method. With two more episodes to go (this Sunday, October 31, and next Sunday, November 7), Sherlock is a
reboot to get behind.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight (Mad Men, Season 4)

I've blogged before about my hesitation to write about Mad Men, partly because after an episode I often don't know how I feel, partly because plenty of other writers do know how they feel about the show and express themselves so well. It's difficult for one perspective to capture a series as dense and elusive as Mad Men, so thankfully the insights of Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz, James Wolcott, and others have each taken a unique angle, combining to cover nearly all the bases in this whirlwind fourth season. Additionally, Michael Cusumano at Serious Film (a terrific blog new to me), recently posted a tremendous overview of S4 that is all but impossible to top.

Yet while the general consensus for season four has been overwhelmingly favorable, last week's finale, "Tomorrowland," polarized opinion more or less down the middle. Seitz thought the episode "had a pleasurably off-kilter feel," and Jim Emerson zeroed in on a couple of key scenes to demonstrate how Mad Men has brought "rich, creative, cinematic work" to television. Wolcott touted some "gold-star moments, coupled with a couple of glamorous shots worthy of Hollywood in its prime" during Don Draper's latest life-changing visit to L.A., yet was left with the feeling that the masterful buildup of dramatic tension in the offices of SCDP "dipped and melted into soft curves" as the focus turned abruptly to Don's falling in love (or something) with Megan amid "a bouquet of dud lines." Tom Shone wasn't buying either: "The writers were trying to put a supertanker through 180 degrees in the space of one episode, and then pass off the viewer's whiplash as part of the plan."

Normally I share Shone's disdain for that type of argument, having heard it for everything from the abysmal sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Magic as a metaphor for drugs -- they're not going to do that....Oh, they just did) to Spielberg and Lucas's Indiana Jones and the Shit Made Up as They Went Along. It's the kind of reasoning that takes creative responsibility away from the creators and puts the onus on the audience to be entertained. For all that, though, I think Matthew Weiner has spent this season engaged in a dialogue with his viewers -- not in an overtly-meta way like Chuck or Community (both of which I like) or flipping the bird like David Lynch's Twin Peaks or Chris Carter's X-Files (both of which I ended up loathing). Weiner's discussion topics have occasionally popped out of the narrative, from the fan-fic wish that Joan's vile husband will get fragged in Vietnam (with Weiner seeming to indicate via Joan the unlikelihood that this will happen) to his distaste for spoilers (Harry Crane's revelations about upcoming soap opera episodes) to stage directions woven amusingly into dialogue (Don suggesting to Peggy "Let's go someplace darker" in "The Suitcase" reminding me of Jules telling Vincent in Pulp Fiction, "Let's get into character").

The larger conversation that Matthew Weiner appears to be having with us has to do with our preconceived notions of what narrative should be. I began my summary of last season by quoting Matt Seitz's brilliant observation from a couple years ago that Mad Men is "a show which explores the systematic dismantling and destruction of the authentic self, and its replacement by manufactured images and feelings, the very images and feelings Don Draper is so adept at creating"; and I ended it by alluding that Weiner was doing something similar to Joss Whedon's famous mission statement in his Buffy-era heyday, giving his audience not what they wanted but what they needed. While I still think Matt's description of Mad Men remains the most definitive, season four seems to be questioning whether a person's original self is in fact the "authentic" one.

Believing this to be the case leads Matt (and other critics and viewers) to be rather harsh on Don Draper's impulsive decision to marry Megan, calling it regressive following his promising baby-steps forward out of alcoholism and self-denial. But a regression to what: the prison of being Don Draper (Matt's thesis)? to the dreamland of Megan over the real-world of Faye (from Logan Hill and Emily Nussbaum's lively discussion at New York magazine)? becoming a mental infant like Betty (the patently tedious debate at Slate)? Bert Cooper quoted a Japanese expression at the end of season one: "A person is whatever room he is in; and right now, Donald Draper is in this room." Dick Whitman may be Don's real name, but that doesn't necessarily make him the "real" Don.

It's intriguing that the episodes that experimented the most with upending this season's narrative conventions featured sojourns to California. Earlier in the year, "The Good News" began with Don's discovery that Anna had cancer and ended with his raucous outing with Lane Pryce on New Year's Eve. In terms of pure plot, the first half had nothing to do with the second -- indeed, it felt as fractured as an egg -- yet it was essential in setting up Don and Lane's bonding out of loneliness and despair. On a larger level, Don's detour with Megan undercut the momentum toward what was shaping up to be another Draper-saves-the-firm climax, and I think "Tomorrowland" was all the better for avoiding going to that well again. More accurately, I went to bed disappointed and woke up delighted, laughing at how deftly Weiner had put one over on me.

Was the Megan diversion a half-assed decision or by intricate design? Hard to say, though Don himself possibly said it best in "The Suitcase" when Peggy admitted that she was struggling with an ad campaign, unable to distinguish a good idea from a bad one, and Don replied, "There's not much difference." Megan first appeared in the secretary pool rounded up by Faye Miller (in "The Rejected," S4's first superb episode), a bit player who also happened to be a striking presence in the form of Quebecois actress Jessica Pare. Megan remained along the margins of the rest of the season, yet I must admit I looked increasingly forward to seeing her even if she had little to offer beyond a willowy frame and a sexy overbite. This gradual recognition was reflected at the end of the later-season "Hands and Knees" by Don's sudden recognition of Megan's presence, a wordless coda that seemed more puzzling then than it does now. One by one, the other women in Don's life circa. 1965 fell by the wayside: Bethany vanished, Allison fled, Miss Blankenship kicked the bucket. Faye was the obvious choice to be the future Mrs. Draper, but we should all know by now that Mad Men doesn't do obvious. (Similarly, I think it's safe to assume that Megan will not prove to be a conniving bitch, as suggested by some, nor will she be a doormat left at home with the kids.)

In hindsight, the ascent of Megan was revealed in subtly suggestive ways, and Don's actions as true to the essence of his character as his impromptu full-page ad denouncing Big Tobacco. His sweet nothings to her in "Tomorrowland" were as blase as Wolcott said they were but I felt that was the point, Don's starry-eyed notions of true love hopelessly cliched yet echoing last season's flashback to when he first told Anna about his engagement to Betty. (It echoes real-world notions as well. About a year ago somebody I know, a college professor, and not the most faithful guy around, uttered the Hallmark sentiment that "love is hard work, but worth it," and his wowed student minions responded as if it were a pearl of wisdom handed down from on high.) And Don's proposal was preceded by the same quiet reflection he did in the immediately prior "Blowing Smoke," only without Midge's painting in front of him. For me, it was the best kind of plot twist that fiction has to offer -- out-of-nowhere yet inevitable, hiding in plain sight.

"Tomorrowland" doesn't rank among the very best of Mad Men -- namely "The Suitcase," this season's crown jewel, the kind of rarity in which everyone who watched it knew that they were seeing something special -- but nor did it feel as bumptious as "The Summer Man" (which one wag called "Don Draper: Private Eye," in reference to some laughable use of voiceover) or "Chinese Wall," mediocre hours to which a couple of aforementioned critics gave a pass. It was arguably the weirdest episode of the series since Betty Draper took aim at her neighbor's pigeons, and capped what I thought was the best season since the first. It also made me regret alluding to Whedon in my summary of S3. Claiming to give fans not what they want but "what they need" strikes me now as a rather arrogant position, resting on the dubious assumption that the creator of a series automatically knows what his viewers need. For all I know, in the abstract, that may be something Matthew Weiner agrees with. But in practice he's searching for answers as much as his complex not-quite-hero, toeing the line between fantasy and reality, selfishness and selflessness, good ideas and bad ones, needing and wanting.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Meat Markets (Temple Grandin and The Runaways)

One can only imagine how Temple Grandin, last year's Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie, was pitched to the folks at HBO. "It's the heartwarming true story of an autistic woman who overcomes her condition and society's prejudices to earn an advanced degree in animal science and build a a curved corral to reduce stress in cattle being led to slaughter...Oh yes, and we're going name the movie after the person because we can't think of a better title." All of it true, yet none of it likely to win over industry producers if uttered verbatim. No, this is what I suspect was said:
"It's A Beautiful Mind -- with cows." I suspect that because that's exactly how Mick Jackson directs: employing animated mathematical/geometrical blueprints and fantasy sequences to show how Temple's mind (we are constantly reminded) is different from everyone else's.

What's surprising is how long this approach works. Jackson, a filmmaker with a long if fairly undistinguished career in both television and theatrical films (Volcano, The Bodyguard), will always hold a place in my heart for directing Steve Martin's L.A. Story, and the tone for the first half of Temple Grandin is similarly spry. We meet Temple (Claire Danes) as she arrives in Arizona to stay on her aunt (Catherine O'Hara) and uncle's (Michael Crabtree) ranch over the summer before college. The heat, the livestock, the house with a sign declaring "TEMPLE'S ROOM!" taped to a door -- the director and his lead actress make the commonplace strange and frightening and new. With a mop of unkempt hair and the jerky gait of a goose, Danes is virtually unrecognizable. Yet she doesn't give the kind of showoffy Oscar- Emmy-baiting performance you might expect (though, of course, she won). Danes's technical skill is sharper than previous roles have indicated, but she goes beyond physical tics and gives Temple an inherently stubborn nature that's very appealing. U
nedited thoughts and opinions stream out of her mouth like ticker-tape, and rather than being offputting, Danes makes believable the character's knack for winning over others through sheer bullheaded conviction.

This is crucial, because the teleplay by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson (based on a couple of Grandin's books) trots out some familiar deck-stacking: mean students making fun of Temple; cold-hearted doctors wanting to put her in an institution; skeptical teachers treating her with disdain. I've no doubt all these things happened at one time or another; but there's a tendency in biopics to condense a true story by stacking the deck in such a way that the filmmakers seem anxious to get the audience on their protagonist's side, as if the real story weren't compelling enough. Characters like the Worrying Tough-Love Mother and the Lone Sympathetic Teacher come across as cliches, no matter how authentically Julia Ormond and David Strathairn play them. Temple Grandin is fortunate to have actors of their caliber and even luckier to have Catherine O'Hara. She takes her talents as a comedienne and channels her amazing timing and ability to play off other performers into her scenes with Danes, which are among the best in the movie (bringing out a younger actress the same way her character draws out her niece), and which are missed after O'Hara essentially vanishes after the first act.

Monger and Johnson's script is oddly shaped, with a long flashback to Temple's crucial relationship with her high school science teacher (Strathairn) after she's already well into her freshman year in college. Then they start piling on the speeches: one at her college graduation, where Temple rambles at length and then starts singing; then another at a conference for parents with autistic children at the end. It's a miscalculation to depict a character's assimilation into society by having her interact less and talk more. Despite Danes's best efforts, Temple Grandin starts to lose her personality and become a symbol. And Jackson's visual tack, endearing at the start, starts to get tiresomely literal-minded (i.e., as Temple approaches every challenge as "a door to walk through," a door literally appears onscreen).

That on some level she is a symbol is a valid counterpoint, and I don't know nearly enough about animal husbandry or autism to make an effective argument either for or against the depiction of either. Yet recently seeing Food, Inc., the powerful documentary about the deplorable treatment of American livestock, couldn't help but dilute the positive effects of Temple Grandin's slaughterhouse reforms as portrayed in the movie. And for every inspirational story about autism, there are horror stories and tragedies that negate the Rain Man-like suggestion that these are human beings with magical properties. (To be fair, Rain Man also showed that taking care of Raymond would be too much for his younger brother; it's an entertaining movie, but more of an actor's showcase than a realistic portrait.) Temple Grandin is as true as it is inspirational, and there's nothing wrong with that kind of specificity. Nor would I be bothered that her speech at the end doesn't address the varied forms of autism -- that it's intended to underline an earlier assertion by Temple's mother that her daughter is "not less, just different" -- if we weren't left with the implication that Temple's story is their story. Temple Grandin may have been produced by HBO in a perverse bit of counterprogramming, but its lack of edge or daring has the unmistakable essence of Lifetime.

One day in the seventh grade, I was standing outside on break with a group of guys around a boombox blaring "Centerfold" by the J. Giles Band. The song had been number one atop the charts for weeks, and my belated attempt to get with the in-crowd was promptly dashed by an even larger group of guys
sauntering by
with an even larger boombox to the infectious, hard-driving sound of what would soon be the new number-one hit in the land, "I Love Rock and Roll," by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It was then that I learned I was officially Uncool. But it wasn't until seeing The Runaways that I knew the more-or-less true story of Jett and her earlier, formative years with the titular all-girl "jailbait band" of the film, or her relationship with Cherie Currie, the beach-blond "cherry bomb" whose meteoric rise preceded a fall from fame caused partly by drug addiction.

After the pinpoint satire of Walk Hard, I'd thought I could never watch a music biopic with a straight face again. (A recent attempt to revisit Walk the Line, one of its primary targets, led to inappropriate giggling.) Yet although The Runaways goes through the familiar motions of the genre, it takes a fresh approach. I've always loathed the suggestion that a filmmaker needs to share a common identity with the subject of a movie. More than a few foreign-born directors have made some of the best movies about America, for example. Nevertheless, the feminine spin that writer-director Floria Sigismondi puts on The Runaways offsets a number of the cliches. When narcissistic record-producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, in another enjoyable scenery-chewing performance) puts the band together, Sigismondi keeps the focus on Curie's sexual exploitation at the expense of the music (her talent being serviceable but limited compared to Jett's). And when Cherie and Joan finally stand up to Fowley, the scene doesn't play with the obligatory tropes of a successful group falling apart. There's something more to their revolt than the usual personality clash -- a matter of actual principle -- so that when Fowley claims to have been inspired by their uprising in a subsequent interview, the joke is on him and his wounded male ego.

I do wish that Jett, not Curie, had been the main character of the movie. Fanning is fine as the latter, and it's a relief to see at least one cliche in the genre (death-by-overdose) negated in the end with a sense of hope. (The real Cherie Curie overcame her drug problems and is alive and well.) But Stewart, slouching her shoulders and lowering her voice to a growl, is so vivid that an entire film could have been centered around her. She's been trying to break out of the trap set by the Twilight series in films like Adventureland and The Runaways, and while these movies have not been commercially successful her performances in them certainly succeed. Stewart reminds me a little of Keira Knightley, an actress with no evident technique but in possession of the kind of rare magnetism that holds the screen. This is especially apparent in the wonderful final scene, set to "Crimson and Clover," my favorite Joan Jett song which, thanks to the sublimely sly expression on Stewart's face, has never been imbued with more feeling or meaning.

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.