The Social Network (2010) – Directed by David Fincher – Starring Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Brian Barter, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones, Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Armie Hammer, and Rooney Mara.
It is often said of players struggling to attain entrance to a Hall of Fame that the institution should be called the Hall of Great, not the Hall of Very Good. That’s where I place THE SOCIAL NETWORK, a film full of great performances that nonetheless falls short of overall cinematic greatness. After watching the SOCIAL, I know more about the formation of Facebook, but I feel like I was was continuously watching snapshots instead of real drama as the film keeps its most important scenes out of sight.
The blame lies with Aaron Sorkin’s script. I hate blaming or crediting screenwriters too much because we never know how much of their script makes it to film. There are so many other hands that touch a script and so many more people who are charged with putting a vision onto film that I’m much more comfortable laying ultimate credit or blame on the head of the director. So when I say the problem is Sorkin’s script, perhaps it’s more Fincher’s fault, but what we have here is a cinematic sleight of hand where there’s lots of flash but not nearly enough substance. It’s a shame because Sorkin’s calling card has been his ability to provide mountains of substance with his flashy dialogue, but in SOCIAL there’s precious little substance when it matters most.
Watching SOCIAL is a lot like watching your Facebook newsfeed – you get the surface representation of people and not their actual selves. That’s what Sorkin’s script does and why it falls short for me; we see Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, and Sean Parker doing lots of things, but so much of the important stuff is left to happen off-screen that it’s hard for me to care about any of these characters or the drama they’re involved in.
Maybe that’s Sorkin’s point – that no matter how much contact we have with other people on Facebook, we “know” them more than we know them – but that distance between those two states keeps the characters at arm’s length and keeps me from wholly embracing or hating them, and the film only touches briefly on this point through the proceedings of Saverin’s lawsuit. I feel like all of these characters are ideas more than people and so despite the interesting story there’s an uneasy feeling that we’re watching Sorkin’s representation of types (the socially awkward programming genius, the elitist daddy’s boy, the asshole has been, the entitled rich boys, the working class girlfriend) instead of Sorkin’s attempt to give us fully-realized characters.
I say it’s a sleight of hand because what does get on the screen is impeccably well-written, acted, and directed, but it’s what’s we don’t see that we need to see, or at least have properly acknowledged. Imagine watching Boogie Nights and only getting to see people show up on set and screw, and never getting to see any of the off-screen relationships develop. the changing nature of the porn industry is the background for what happens to the characters, but in SOCIAL it’s the inverse of that storytelling strategy, as the creation and evolution of “the Facebook” is more important than the relationship between the characters. I don’t know why any of these characters are friends or colleagues except for being involved with Facebook, and we’re not given any sense of their personal motivations for interacting with one another in the manner they do.
Sorkin frustratingly keeps revelations at arm’s length, robbing us of most of the really important scenes. I want to see the moment Parker (Justin Timberlake) weasels his way into becoming a 7% shareholder in the company. I want to see the moment Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) decides to screw Eduardo (Garfield) out of his 30% stake in the company. I want to see and hear Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook rationale for screwing the Winklevosses out of their idea. We get a fantastic scene at the start of the movie with Zuckerberg being a total dick to his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), we see her dump him for being a total dick, we see him write nasty things about her on his blog, and then we see him create a web program that rates the attractiveness of female undergrads at Harvard. It’s such a great (and apparently fictionalized) moment that it makes the lack of critical scenes later all the more obvious for their omission.
After this opening sequence Zuckerberg spends most of the rest of the film with his head down while he’s busy being a genius, or pouting, or being a pouty genius. He’s got eyes only for Sean Parker, the creator of Napster, whom he sees as part rockstar, part svengali. From the moment Parker arrives, there’s a battle between him and Saverin for the soul of Zuckerberg and Facebook, but none of the characters come off as likable and Sorkin misses a great opportunity to delve into an intriguing conflict between Parker and Saverin. Parker is undoubtedly a shifty huckster, but his business contacts and growth model really are better than what the likable, but in-over-his-head Eduardo has to offer. I’d have been more interested to see that angle explored, but the film in these moments lets Parker stand center stage with Zuckerberg and Eduardo circling around him at varying distances. Unfortunately, Sorkin never takes us into Parker’s mind and so after a really effective introduction, where he engages in some morning after talk with a Stanford coed that shows he’s sees more than he lets on, Parker is just a type and not a character.
At the end of the film, one of Zuckerberg’s lawyers (Rashida Jones) tells him, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying really hard to be one.”
Bullsh*t. Cinematic Zuckerberg is a complete asshole.
I have no idea what Actual Zuckerberg is like in real life, but in this film he’s a petty, vindictive, jealous thief much more than he is some kind of internet visionary. He creates Facebook to get back at his ex. He screws Eduardo over because he’s jealous that his friend got into some super elite social club. In one of the few windows into his motivation, Zuckerberg is at a happening night club with Parker and two models and Parker feeds him a line about how he created Napster to get back at a high school girlfriend who was dating someone else. We never know if this is actually true, but when Zuckerberg asks Parker if he ever thinks about that girl, the Napster founder’s reply is a dismissive, “No.” The look on Zuckerberg’s face lets you know that he knows he’ll never be in that place. It’s top notch acting by Eisenberg, who is so good I wish Sorkin had given him more to do. Even at the end, in his final cinematic moments, we see Zuckerberg contemplating and them sending a friend request to that ex-girlfriend, as if everything that’s happened – all of the stealing and growth – was directly as a result of getting dumped.
It’s great that we get glimpses into his motivation, but I want to see the moment that Zuckerberg okays turning Eduardo’s 30% stake into an 0.03% stake. That’s the most important moment in the film and it’s nowhere to be found. I think we need to see it, but it’s like the film can never fully commit to the idea that Zuckerberg is a really bad guy. He’s the center of the film, and he’s not as outrageously evil as Parker, nor as crybaby as the Winklevosses, but he’s still a rather reprehensible character and I’d rather have seen that more fully explored (especially given Eisenberg’s fantastic performance) than seeing him sitting at two different legal dispositions doodling away on his notepad and occasionally offering caustic retorts to his opposition’s lawyer. Sorkin treats Zuckerberg like a yo-yo for the audience; at times we get ridiculously close, but then he keeps us so far away Zuckerberg is a puzzle, his actions hidden from sight.
Saverin and Parker don’t come off much better. If there’s a hero in the film, it’s Saverin, but he comes off more as a cuckolded sap whose smart but out of his depth than an actual person we can root to succeed. At first, he’s the guy who wants to start making money with Facebook and he sets up meetings to get some financing, but Zuckerberg isn’t interested in helping him and the people he manages to meet with aren’t interested in giving him any money. We hear from Parker that Saverin made some small deals for ads on Facebook, but we don’t see Saverin making any of those deals. We hear that he’s been riding the subway for 14 hours a day in New York while Zuckerberg is partying it up in Cali with Parker, but we don’t see any of it. Saverin is in the right, and he gets financially screwed, but since we don’t see all of the hard work that he puts in (all we really see is him giving Zuckerberg money, and only $19,000 at that) is little more than a status update where someone you kinda know says, “Eduardo Saverin had a really bad day.”
The worst person in the film is Parker, who comes off as a paranoid party animal looking to use Zuckerberg to make himself rich. We see plenty of evidence of him being a dick, but we don’t get inside his head to understand him or really get to hate him. David Fincher does prove that if you give Justin Timberlake something he can do, he can be a rather effective screen presence. I’m not sure that Timberlake is ever going to be a movie star, but he can certainly be a solid contributor to a film that doesn’t rely on him to carry it, and if he gets enough of these roles, perhaps he can grow into a leading man.
The high water mark for insider films like this is HBO’s Barbarians at the Gate and THE SOCIAL NETWORK doesn’t come close to that level, but it also falls far short of the woefully underrated and seemingly forgotten about The Insider, Michael Mann’s powerful film about the tobacco industry starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. THE SOCIAL NETWORK looks good and it sounds good, and Eisenberg, Garfield, and Timberlake all give engaging performances, but because the film robs us of their most critical moments, SOCIAL falls flat. It’s neither a true insider’s account nor a finely tuned social commentary – it’s just a bunch of spoiled assholes acting selfishly.
Perhaps because of this, no one comes off worse in the film than Harvard, which is portrayed as a festering den of spoiled rich kids and selfish geniuses who have little clue about ethics or common decency. The dismissal of the Winklevosses by the university President should come off as a proper scolding for two spoiled brats who overstate Zuckerberg’s crime against them, but it actually comes off as a self-important hand job to the idea of Harvard as the greatest university in the world.
Maybe watching SOCIAL is like going to see your favorite band in concert and while they’re really good, they don’t play the songs you really want to hear. And not three obscure B-sides, either, but three signature songs that are most associated with the band that, for whatever reason, doesn’t get played on that night. You might have seen the Allman Brothers in concert, but if you haven’t seen them perform “Whipping Post,” “Ramblin’ Man,” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” can you really say you’ve seen them? I saw them back in the mid-90s on a night when Dicky Betts was, according to Greg, “avoiding the authorities.” They had Zakk Wylde fill in and Wylde, while awesome in his own way, was not a traditional sounding fill-in. For people who’d seen the Allman Brothers ten times, it was probably a nice change-up but for me, seeing one of my favorite bands for the first time, it was a disappointment. I felt like I had to see them again because I hadn’t really seen them at their best that night.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is never boring, and perhaps in this review I’ve done that annoying thing where I concentrate too much on the negative instead of the positive, but when Fincher’s film is all over it left me wanting for the things that should have been included. I can appreciate it for what’s here, but I can’t forgive it for what’s not.