Thursday, September 30, 2010

Oscar Pandering Season Comes Early (And Rightfully) With The Social Network!

The Good: Great dialogue, Wonderful acting, Engaging plot/development
The Bad: Underlit, Unempathetic characters
The Basics: The Social Network, the latest Aaron Sorkin endeavor, has all the makings of a successful film . . . except characters to care about.

It does not take much to become a fan of the works of Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a brilliant writer and while his show Sports Night (click here for review!) was truly what sold me on his exceptional talents, he is arguably better known for his show The West Wing and his film The American President. He is also known for being ridiculously smart and not being terribly concerned about raising the bar for dialogue in American cinema. Sadly, last night as I sat at a screening of his new film The Social Network, others seemed to find the intelligence of his writing and the characters he was portraying through his writing to be "too smart." I cringed when I heard one of my fellow viewers make that complaint as I honestly thought that the commercial success of The Big Bang Theory would have adequately softened up mass culture for a character like the Sorkin-written Mark Zuckerberg.

I write "character" for Mark Zuckerberg because The Social Network is loosely adapted from The Accidental Billionaires and it is played out like a drama, fiction. I am delightfully ignorant of the reality of the start of Facebook - or The Facebook, as it was initially known in the movie - so this is a pure review of the film as a film, not as any sort of documentary. The truth is Sorkin and director David Fincher have managed to create an entirely engaging movie without a strong enough protagonist to actually care about. While David Fincher, who is used to bending reality for films like The Game (click here for my review!), has The Social Network move along at a great clip for a two hour film, but the riches to riches story of Mark Zuckerberg is robbed of perfection by how he underlits most of the movie and how he and Sorkin fail to make the viewer truly care about the central protagonist.

At Harvard University in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica are having a meandering discussion about geniuses and final clubs when Erica decides the relationship is over. Walking out on Mark leaves the sophomore distraught and he returns to his dorm room where he begins blogging about the failure of his relationship - and Erica's many faults - and hacking the various Harvard clubs for photographs of women on campus. Mark's best friend Eduardo arrives, having actually read his blog, to comfort Mark and he shares a code with Mark which will allow the young genius to create a website by which visitors vote on which of any two young women Mark has taken the pictures of is hotter. As a party rages as Harvard's prestigious Phoenix Club, Mark's little Facemash site gets 22,000 hits in two hours, crashing the Harvard servers.

At that moment, The Social Network flashes forward to a near-future where Mark is being sued on two fronts, one of which is Eduardo himself. It is noted that Mark received a six month academic probation for crashing the servers and from that action, he draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins, who are also suing Mark in the future. Back in 2003/4, Mark is approached by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss who want Mark to make an exclusive social website for Harvard which will allow only the cream of the Harvard crop to stay in contact with one another. After being asked to create this by the twins, Mark begins developing a social website with Eduardo's help and money. With Eduardo's $1,000 startup money for servers and other expenses, Mark and Eduardo begin developing which goes live early in 2004. When that happens, Eduardo tries to turn the site from something that is cool and different into something which will help him make his money back (and make his 30% stake in the company mean something) and the Winklevoss twins begin complaining about how Mark stole their intellectual property (which he denies because he used none of their code). As thefacebook begins to make Mark and, to a lesser extent, Eduardo famous on the college campuses, Mark is wooed by Sean Parker, founder of Napster, who sees Mark's Facebook as a way to make money and screw over those who he believes wronged him in the past.

First, where The Social Network goes wrong. Why? Because there is so little wrong with the movie, I want to get what doesn't work out of the way. The first is that David Fincher does underlight far too much of the movie, making it visually murky which makes the viewer work unnecessarily just to catch movement in several of the scenes. Sure, there is some mood that is created from the smoky bar, the smoky party and later the bong-smoke in Mark's California residence, but even the scenes at the depositions are not terribly bright and that is distracting on a very simple level.

Beyond that, the only thing wrong with the movie is that the characters are not interesting enough to make us care about them. That is not entirely true. Mark starts out as engaging - even if Sorkin resorts to the annoying cliche that brilliant people are miserable and socially awkward - and Eduardo is likable throughout. The problem becomes that Sean Parker is utterly unlikable and when Mark starts associating with him, I quickly realized that I didn't care at all how the lawsuits against Mark turned out as a result. The viewer empathizes completely with Eduardo, especially after Facebook stock is diluted making him virtually irrelevant, but the Winklevoss twins seem like whiny elitist snobs and Mark's seduction by, frankly, the douchebag Parker makes one think he couldn't be all that smart to begin with. Parker pretty much ruins the relationship between Eduardo and Mark - and there's some implied love from Eduardo to Mark which is not developed well after it is heavily insinuated early on - and given the complexity of Mark's mind at the beginning of the film, the viewer is left a little disappointed that he was so easily duped. After all, it doesn't take a genius to see that when Parker has Mark tell Case financial "f-you" (which, given it is the only one I heard in the movie, seems to imply the film is aiming for a PG-13 instead of an R) that he is acting out of his own sense of spite and not in Mark's best interest.

Beyond that, though, The Social Network is homogeneously wonderful. Aaron Sorkin's dialogue pops and is predictably smart. This might go over the heads of many viewers, though, as I found there were lines that only garnered laughs from me at the screening, but Sorkin fans will be pleased. As well, despite not quite landing, the relationship between Mark and Eduardo is a refreshingly true relationship between two strong, likable young men. Moreover, the intertwining of the two lawsuits is done so well that the viewer is never confused about which proceeding is underway and it remains easy to follow the progression of the story. The story may not be terribly complicated, but the rise of the on-line social site is told with a surprisingly brisk pace and feels much shorter than the two hour running time.

The Social Network is also bound to get a lot of attention for the quality of the performances in it. Justin Timberlake makes Sean utterly unlikable, but he plays the founder of Napster with an arrogance and cocky quality that reads as very true. Moreover, Armie Hammer and Josh Pence play Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss perfectly. Indeed, it wasn't until doing fact-checking on the IMDB for names that I discovered the twins weren't! They perform with a synergy that is absolutely brilliant.

Jesse Eisenberg, whose only other work I've seen is Zombieland, adequately leads the cast of The Social Network. Despite the humor in Zombieland, Eisenberg has a serious quality to him that made his character in that completely credible. Similarly, in The Social Network, he is able to walk around with eyes narrowed and shoulders hunched. He makes it around Sorkin's fast dialogue expertly and he instantly convinces the viewer that Mark is exactly that smart and socially awkward. Eisenberg is credible, even if the viewer does not particularly care which lawsuit he might win or lose.

It is Andrew Garfield who steals The Social Network, both from his performance as Eduardo and the character he plays. Garfield has an instant dignity and humanity that he brings to the role of Eduardo. From the way he softens his expression the instant he first sees Mark after Mark is dumped by Erica to the way he steels his eyes when freezing the account that Mark has for Facebook, Garfield is in complete command of the role. Moreover, Garfield looks the part of a young businessman who is aware, clever and has enough heart (and capital) to fund his friend. From the moment Garfield is on screen as Eduardo without Mark, the viewer begins to root for him, to empathize with his struggle and care about the resolution of his character's arc.

Ultimately, though, The Social Network is a human rise-to-power story that makes it easy - because of the youth involved - to forget that it is the story of young rich, white kids making an obscene amount of money. It is well-told, but at the end of the day, for all its greatness, it is hard to overlook that it is a fight between a bunch of young people over what is cool. No matter how clever the dialogue is, it never snaps beyond that. Still, it is easily the best thing audiences are going to see up until the big push for Oscar nominations and it is refreshing to see The Social Network try for the attention of voters this early on. Hopefully, that audacity will be rewarded.

For other works by Aaron Sorkin, please check out my reviews of:
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
Charlie Wilson's War
The West Wing
Sports Night


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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