Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Social Network (2010)

Like a lot of people, I scoffed when I heard that David Fincher was going to direct Facebook: The Movie starring the poor man's Michael Cera. Clearly I was selling a lot of people short, because as it turns out it's actually a pretty good movie. It's based on a book that I haven't read and I have no idea how much of it is true, but when the results are this entertaining I don't really give a shit. My biggest worry was that the subject matter would date the movie so bad they might as well call it Released 1st October 2010: The Movie, but really it isn't about Facebook at all. Instead it's more of a tragic success story about the founder, Mark Zuckerberg, a self-entitled Harvard computer science student who became an overnight billionnaire. Somehow Fincher turned the story of this asshole into a riches-to-more-riches story worthy of any in the genre.

Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a computer science student at Harvard University who gains notorierty when, in a drunken rage after being dumped by his girlfriend, he creates Facesmash, a website to rate the attractiveness of female students. After he is disciplined by the school board he is approached by twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie and Armie Hammer), who want to hire him and his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) to create an exclusive social networking site for Harvard University. Instead they steal the idea and create their own website, called thefacebook.com, which becomes wildly popular.

One of the things that struck me when watching this film is how easily they could have played it safe and turned it into a nerds vs jocks crowdpleaser, with a crusty old dean who tries to get Zuckerberg expelled and insists that "this facebook nonsense won't amount to anything." Instead it's almost the opposite, with the Winklevoss twins as victims who actually hold back from legal action until they've exhausted every other possibility. They insist that they are "gentlemen of Harvard" and worry that pursuing Zuckerberg will make them look like the bullies from Karate Kid (the original, not the remake).

Zuckerberg is also approached by Sean Parker the founder of Napster. The guy is obsessed with image and clearly nuts, but you can see how Zuckerberg would fall for his bullshit and dump his best friend to hang with the cool kids. He convinces Zuckerberg to move to quite college and move to L.A., eventually setting up a business deal to edge Eduardo out of the company. By the time Parker's paranoia and irresponsibility become a liability it's too late. All of this is structured in a series of flashbacks that take place during the deposition of a lawsuit against Zuckerberg by the people he fucked over. The cutways to this deposition maybe take place a little too frequently for my liking, but it works pretty well as a framework.

It's written by Aaron Sorkin, and you can tell because everybody speaks at a million miles an hour and even nerds with no social skills are capable of producing zingers that most of us couldn't dream up with four weeks written notice. It's very writerly and not all naturalistic, but it hits that sweet spot where it's fun to listen to without collapsing under the weight of it's own stylisation. Luckily it doesn't have too much of that The West Wing thing where the slightest provocation can set off a spontaneous ten minute political rant.

It's also another one of those films I like where the script is filled with ironies that could have been pushed harder but weren't. There's the fact that a nerd with no social skills is developing a social networking site, the fact that he is so acutely aware of how university social life works even though he's barely a participant himself etc. I'm sure some asshole in a suit probably wanted to bring in Paul Haggis in to "punch up" the script, adding a scene where a side character stands up to Zuckerberg and states "Don't you see? Even though you created Facebook, your cold, abrasive approach to human interaction means you'll never be a part of the social network". Somehow cooler heads prevailed.

The only place I thought the film tripped up was in how it was bookended by women lecturing Zuckerberg about his life. It begins with his now-ex, who basically calls him an asshole in a clever, Sorkin-esque way. It ends with Rashida Jones, a young lawyer, telling him "You're not a bad guy, but you're trying real hard to be." The fact that it's the final line of the movie implies that it has some truth to it, but I don't know, I think he actually is a pretty bad guy. He intentionally stole someone's idea and fucked over all of his friends and colleagues. The fact that he didn't twirl a handlebar moustache while he did it didn't doesn't really make much difference to me.

I also liked that they didn't feel the need to dumb down the computer stuff with phony stuff like bleeping keyboards or spinning 3D logos. Some programming lingo slips in here or there, but the computer stuff is mainly limited to a masterfully executed sequence where Zuckerberg explains how he pulled all the student images off the Harvard servers. It's really good, executed with all the tension and excitement of a master criminal explaining a bank heist. The only Hollywood bullshitty part was where Zuckerberg and Eduardo pick up a couple of groupies, hot girls that, for some reason, are hanging around at a Bill Gates keynote speech at the Harvard computer science faculty. True, one of them is Asian and insane, but come on.

Given that it's a David Fincher film I don't really need to comment on the technical aspects. I can recognise the excellence even in the ones I don't like (eg Benjamin Button aka Forest Gump 2: The Gumpening). It's pretty low-key for a Fincher film and there aren't too many quirky touches, except for a cool scene where a rowing competition is inexplicably scored to Hall of the Mountain King. Believable performances, intelligent storytelling etc etc. In short, this was a great movie, probably the best movie I've ever seen that is based on a website. Way better than fear.com

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