Friday, February 25, 2011

CST does the Oscars: The Social Network

With the Oscars taking place at the end of this month, Cleveland Sports Torture is revisiting some of the films nominated for 2011 Best Picture. These reviews may contain spoilers, so readers beware.

“The Social Network” is a movie trying to capture an elusive truth: Just how did a Harvard undergrad build the online global phenomenon that has reached half-a-billion people and made its creator dizzyingly wealthy?

The technical side of this world-altering endeavor is not so much in question, at least for those of us with advanced degrees in computer science. The ownership of the still-growing beast that is Facebook is another matter, however, and such is the crux of David Fincher’s briskly entertaining if factually untrustworthy Oscar nominee.

The story of computer programming brain-boy Mark Zuckerberg is part origin myth, part character study and part adolescent fantasy told from the shaky perspective of a handful of warring personalities, all of whom claim to be the father of a billion-dollar baby. If you’re looking for a hard-news account of Facebook’s inception, “The Social Network” may be a letdown.

Fincher’s telling, based on Ben Mezrich’s luridly subtitled book, The Accidental Billionaires: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, is told through flashbacks via deposition hearings for two concurrent lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg. The movie surrounding these flashbacks plays like a juicy, fast-paced Hollywood thriller, and like many Tinseltown affairs is peppered with conventions of the genre.

“The Social Network” largely forsakes Facebook’s technical and business beginnings for scenes of bathroom sex and wild parties. These “lad lit” tenets are found throughout the movie, although, from its biased perspective at least, “The Social Network” does a commendable job of highlighting the differences of opinion that may have led to the fracturing of the partnership between Zuckerberg and his financier and best friend Eduardo Saverin.

(In Fincher’s and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s reckoning, economics major Saverin wanted to sell ad space on Facebook to generate revenue, while Zuckerberg believed ads would cause the site to lose the “cool” factor that made it popular.)

Zuckerberg, played with blunt humorlessness by Jesse Eisenberg, is the heavy of the piece. According to this telling of a naive kid’s rise, fall and last-minute redemption that’s comparable to any piece of tabloid quality drama, Zuckerberg not only winkles an idea for a social networking website from a trio of fellow Harvardites, he stabs his business partner and best pal in the back with a kind of maliciously innocent deviousness.

The depiction of Zuckerberg as an arrogant, socially awkward rodent may not be fair, but damned if it isn’t fun to watch, and this is where “The Social Network” ultimately excells. Eisenberg is excellent and gives his antihero some depth. There’s weariness and guilt in the performance that suggests Zuckerberg got caught up in a situation he was ill-prepared to handle. The cast’s other standouts include Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg’s former friend and partner Saverin and Justin Timberlake as glad-handing Napster founder Sean Parker.

“The Social Network” rarely stops to catch its breath, and that’s a good thing. It’s an ambitious, well-acted and compelling romp about the guy who (most likely) made “Facebook me” part of our cultural lexicon. Just don’t look too closely as this Oscar-contender whips by, as the chronicle of the founding of Facebook probably has a few cracks in its assessment of reality.