Saturday, October 9, 2010
The Social Network (2010) A Film by David Fincher
Early trailers, with the particularly inspired addition of a choir version of Radiohead's "Creep", would have lead you to believe The Social Network would be a film about virtuality, digital voyeurism, and ultimately, the changed social dynamics of the internetworking age. It's both a blessing to the film's classical narrative efficiency and a head-scratching peculiarity that director David Fincher could hardly care less about any of that. What he has devised really has more in common with the great literary and cinematic traditions of flawed ambition dramas, of antihero studies like Citizen Kane and Fitzcarraldo. So while The Social Network may be one of Fincher's most accomplished, mature films, it's also perhaps his most confined and unmitigated, or his least interesting in terms of argument's sake. One can often sense the gears churning, as the film's predictably inscrutable subject Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) builds the internationally famous social networking enterprise Facebook.com and hits the various narrative checkpoints along the way, evincing small, ephemeral psychological insights: he gets dumped by his girlfriend, hops on Napster founder Sean Parker's (Justin Timberlake) boat to maximize a level of "cool", screws over his best friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) once achieving a state of cyber domination, and finally attempts to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend in a wondrous in-joke that concludes the film. As drama, it has a tendency to be inoffensively by-the-numbers, but its real strength is as a classical entertainment.
This is especially unexpected from Fincher, whose prior films often seem decidedly averse (that is, by Hollywood standards) to the crowd-pleasing factor; witness the cerebral melancholy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the creepy body horror of Seven, the literal-mindedness and subversive genre-mingling of Zodiac, or the nihilism of Fight Club. His no-fun sensibility notwithstanding, The Social Network announces its whimsical, accelerated attitude right from the get-go, in which the impact of the tumultuous break-up scene that catapults the plot lands somewhere in the ballpark of a vaudeville show. Much of this must be credited to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who specializes in the kind of conversational ping-pong that Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be ex Erica (Rooney Mara) engage in, but it's of course also perfectly staged and acted; Fincher's simplistic reversals and shallow depth of field insure the attention is directed only at Eisenberg and Mara's terrific on-screen chemistry and disastrous romantic compatibility. He's simultaneously flexing his ego about his ability to maintain a sweeping presence in Harvard University's prestigious "Final Clubs" and irrationally analyzing her harmless responses, all of which illuminates his casual condescension. Meanwhile, she's growing increasingly impatient with his inability to detect his own social shortcomings, so that his eventual proclamation of her as "just a BU student" is the unsurprising final nail in the coffin that thoroughly earns her dismissal of him as an "asshole".
Fincher bathes the scene, and by extension, the remainder of what takes place on the isolated campus of Harvard University, in the marvelous hazy golden light he loves to employ, and it's not just aesthetic fluff. His rendering of the royal atmosphere of the most exalted college in the nation is some of the finest mood-building of his career. A constant sense of pesky menace dilutes the school's otherwise distinguishable core values, and accounts for the extended post-credit montage of juvenile internet mongering that Zuckerberg inspires across the campus and eventually the entire city of Boston. Fueled by his recent break-up, he drunkenly codes an imbecilic spam site called Facesmash that offers the possibility for more inebriated misogynists to pit fellow female students against each other in a battle of hotness. This is the kind of rampant desire for social and sexual acceptance that seethes beneath Zuckerberg's mostly disinterested, elitist facade and guides the eventual birth of Facebook, which is his attempt to supplant all real-world social hierarchies with an online counterpart, amassing such intimate details as relationship statuses, pictures, personal interests, etc.
You get the idea. Plot synopsizing has been beaten to death elsewhere, so I'm not going to spell out every individual right and left turn The Social Network takes. Ultimately, it seems pointless anyway, because the film doesn't bring anything particularly new and unique to the table narratively, which isn't inherently a negative trait. The film vacillates between three strands: the actual chronological entrepreneurial ascent of Zuckerberg and, eventually, Parker, and two separate legal trials detailing the lawsuits placed against him by Saverin (for corporate exploitation and treason) and a pair of twin brothers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (for what they deem, largely due to their own brand of elitism, to be intellectual theft). Fincher's complex editing scheme - jumping back and forth based on associative and sometimes direct links, creating a flashy web of cause and effect - is a staple of legal dramas/biopics such as this, but the orthodoxy doesn't matter because of how well the form is employed. Like Zuckerberg's own skittish, multi-tasking mind (an idea he memorably asserts to a lawyer when answering a question about where his attention is), the film careens like the very nature of our convergence culture, in which the average person does not focus his/her attention on one platform but many at the same time. People no longer lead private, immediate lives; we are existing across various planes on a daily basis, those of the physical, emotional, and digital spheres. One might argue that this is how humans have always carried on, perhaps in different, more primitive iterations, but that it's fundamentally the same nonetheless. And I would adamantly agree, except that Facebook and the internet have accelerated, simplified, and standardized our ability to perform this balancing act.
Fincher's decision to impart such shallow focus, singling out individual characters in a room with ghostly blurs of people behind them, is an apt visual metaphor for this 21st-century insularity. It's only a shame that he didn't decide to carry these thematic concerns further, settling instead for what is primarily a classical character drama, a power struggle between a group of males all fighting for authority and economic affluence, albeit with differing methods. I can't help but think: why not take full advantage of the fascinatingly modern themes at his disposal with this kind of story? Granted, the film's few instances of direct Facebook-related content - Saverin's girlfriend fumes over the lack of mention on his profile page about being in a relationship, Zuckerberg's insistent refreshing of Erica's page after sending a friend request her way - are cute and distorted at best, so maybe dealing with the internet trends openly was something Fincher and Sorkin were, to borrow Zuckerberg's snappy line, "intellectually and creatively (in)capable of doing." As it is, The Social Network is a tremendously functional movie, with phenomenal performances, a driving score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, assured pacing, witty dialogue, and eye-catching images, but it rarely breathes like a work of art. With that said, I look forward to being entertained by it again.