Oct. 1 2010 12:00 AM

Social Network: A slap in the Facebook


It’s difficult to argue that Mark Zuckerberg is not a thief since he’s stolen something precious from hundreds of millions of people: their time.

Zuckerberg is the mastermind behind Facebook and the subject of director David Fincher’s outstanding “The Social Network” (opening nationwide on Friday). The movie asks if Zuckerberg also purloined the idea for Facebook from a couple of his classmates at Harvard, wealthy identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Was Zuckerberg a visionary or merely an opportunist?

Aaron Sorkin’s witty screenplay — which makes the behind-the-scenes drama of the creation of a website far more enthralling than you’d ever imagine — neither condemns nor condones Zuckerberg directly, although it certainly doesn’t set him up as a heroic figure either. In fact, because of Jesse Eisenberg’s unnervingly on-the-mark performance, Zuckerberg emerges as a sort of super-cipher, incapable of relating to anyone around him, including his roommate and business benefactor, Eduardo Saverin (a beautifully shaded performance by Andrew Garfield). The acidic joke at the center of “The Social Network” is that the leader of the cult of Facebook is a social pariah with almost no discernible personality.

Fincher loves to build films around hard-driving people who never stop charging ahead, regardless of the pain it may cause them or those around them: Think of Edward Norton plunging into the underworld in “Fight Club,” or Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo giving up their lives to chase a serial killer in “Zodiac.” Zuckerberg is Fincher’s kind of guy, an obsessive-compulsive type with complete tunnelvision, focused only on what he wants to do and all but oblivious to the outside world. When confronted by opposition, Zuckerberg rarely rises to rage; instead, he becomes evasive or adopts a chilly sort of self-righteousness, as if talking down to ordinary human beings is too much work for him.

The real villain in “Social,” though, turns out to be Facebook’s fair-weather Friend, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who slithered away from the wreckage of Napster and coiled himself around Zuckerberg’s pet project. Parker is both laughable and loathsome, like one of those penniless aristocrats from a 1930s screwball comedy, a homeless highroller who seems to shower in champagne and powder himself with cocaine. He’s also just smart enough to drive a wedge between the inexperienced Zuckerberg — who is blinded by the snowstorm of glitter that surrounds Sean — and the more pragmatic Saverin, who is not swayed by a few Appletinis and a couple platters of exotic sushi.

Writing code and setting up servers is not the stuff of exciting cinema, and Fincher knows it. Instead of giving us shots of sweaty nerds typing away furiously, he finds the movie’s heartbeat in Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, which the actors toss back and forth as if they were playing a game of verbal hot potato. Although there’s little in the way of traditional action in the film — in fact, you could argue that some of the debauched party scenes were dropped in strictly to provide extra eye candy — “Social” unfolds like a powerhouse play, in which Zuckerberg is caught between being honorable and loyal or racing into the fast lane in the passenger seat of Parker’s black Escalade.

Repeatedly, Zuckerberg insists he’s not motivated by money; Sorkin believes him. As “Social” draws to a close, the movie strikes a strangely bittersweet note. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you Facebook turns out to be pretty popular, but Zuckerberg’s muse is surprising. It turns out that, like the gypsies in “A Chorus Line,” he did it all for love — the eternally unrequited kind.

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