Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why I'm Not Jumping on 'The Social Network' Bandwagon

To quote a friend who actually was talking about a different film (The Kids Are All Right), I thought that The Social Network was a perfectly enjoyable way to spent two hours. But it didn't follow me around long after the credits rolled -- in fact, I didn't stick around to watch the credits roll. I didn't spend days, or hours even, obsessing over the engrossing story, the unforgettable characters, or the brilliant acting (though there certainly was some of the latter). When it was over, it was over.

So as the movie hogs the critics prizes and collects multiple nominations for prestigious awards, I ask, "How does a well-made movie but one with such a weak emotional core become the year's critical juggernaut, steamrolling its way to a guaranteed Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a likely win?" My only explanation is that the zeitgeisty subject matter -- the creation of Facebook -- is working overtime in its favor.

I don't have a problem with the film's much-discussed inaccuracies. Aaron Sorkin based his screenplay on The Accidental Billionaires, a widely disputed book that was accused of being very loosely based on a true story. So hyper-realism obviously wasn't the movie's goal. Most biopics bend facts anyway. I watch films, even those based on real people or events, to be entertained and moved emotionally or intellectually. If I want just the facts (or the major players' interpretation of them), I can dig up court transcripts, check out old interviews, or read a history book.

My big gripe with The Social Network (or La Red Social, as it's called here in Argentina) is that the story as presented by Sorkin and director David Fincher wasn't strong enough to really suck me in. Because I was never 100 per cent invested in the plot, I wasn't anxious about the resolution. The deposition scenes that framed the movie were outstanding, but since Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the defendant in two lawsuits, is the youngest billionaire on the planet, there was no real suspense because all of the money that was at stake was only a drop in the bucket for Zuckerberg. Even he seemed uninterested in the outcome.

As for his moral and professional conflict with Facebook cofounder and CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), it was hard to root for either side because Zuckerberg was presented as such a jerk (though one with whom the audience should sympathize -- note the junior lawyer's ultimate assessment of him as a decent guy who tries too hard to be an asshole -- when a full-on villain would have made for a more interesting film), and I never knew enough about Saverin to really care about him. Despite the limitations of the role, though, I think Garfield is the one player worthy of his Oscar buzz.

I wish I could say the same thing about Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg. I still haven't figured out if the problem lies with the performance, the filmmakers, or both. I really loved him in the opening scene (the movie's best), the desposition scenes, and the classroom scene where he walked out of the lecture but not before letting the professor know that he was leaving because he was bored, not because he couldn't handle the material. This is where he let Zuckerberg be as bratty as he wanted to be, the kind of guy who would send anyone running in the opposite direction. In these scenes, everything came together: the acting, the screenplay, the direction. It's easy to understand why his girlfriend would say that dating him is like dating a treadmill. I was out of breath after those first few minutes with him.

I wish there had been more of that guy. Where the presentation of Zuckerberg was lacking was in the scenes about the actual creating of Facebook. He came across as brilliant, sullen and kind of dull. Neither heroic nor villainous, he was so inscrutable that it was never quite clear what drove him to create one of the biggest Internet phenomenon's ever. Zuckerberg himself says that he just likes to build things, but that doesn't easily lend itself to compelling cinema. Since The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg is basically a fictional character based on a real one, I wish Sorkin and Fincher had taken the creative license to let him be driven by greed, lust for money, power, or sex. None of these things, however, were presented as being particularly important to him.

Was his rejection by the final club the prime motivator? Being accepted by Harvard's student body meant more to Saverin (and Garfield is way too cute to be playing the outcast, by the way) than it did to Zuckerberg, who came across as being more passionate about impressing Napster founder Sean Parker than anything else. And if jealousy over having to watch Saverin get into the final club is why he started to turn on him, the film, which pinned the blame mostly on Parker, offered precious little evidence. Because the plotting against Saverin happened mostly offscreen (he already was being edged out by the time he withdrew his funding, almost destroying Facebook), the film lost what could have been the most riveting element of its Facebook creation theory.

Despite the brilliant irony of the final scene, I didn't buy that launching Facebook was all about a girl either. That's not because the girlfriend in the movie doesn't actually exist, but because the film offered no evidence that the onscreen Zuckerberg's relationship with the Erica Albright character was particularly deep, or that she was worth more than one silly online prank and a weak attempt to get her to leave a dinner with friends to talk to him. I thought the scenes with Albright were strong, but there should have been more of them. The Facebook sequences would have had more impact had they been juxtaposed with a few more personal ones -- Zuckerberg and his family, Zuckerberg and fellow students not associated with Facebook, Zuckerberg being torn up about the break-up with Erica and trying harder to woo her back. The latter also would have given the movie the strong female presence that it lacked.

I'm still on the fence about Justin Timberlake's interpretation of Parker, who became Facebook's first president. I don't know what Parker is like in real life, and I'm not sure why Timberlake played the coke-snorting womanizing party monster as being slightly swishy. Still, it was an interesting performance, and Timberlake really owned every scene he was in. I can see why Zuckerberg was so taken and why Saverin was so threatened, and that's credit to a performance that convincingly brought out the charmer and the snake in a guy who might be just as fascinating as the one at the center of the film, if not more so.

Yes, The Social Network was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend two hours, but a biopic about the founder of Napster is the movie that I really want to see.

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