Now that we’re in the middle of awards-bait season, David Fincher’s The Social Network remains one of the few stand-outs of the year as a nomination-lock, due to its simultaneous critical and commercial success. I’d say The Social Network and Inception are the only big two that have managed to achieve high marks in both categories and stick the landing, and along with indie overperformer The Kids Are All Right and Pixar’s animated Toy Story 3, comprise the handful of films to distinguish themselves this past year. There have been a few great movies that have failed to find an audience (Let Me In, Buried) but mainly the problem seems to be moviegoers avoiding anything talky or thought-provoking in the failing economy (Greenberg, Chloe, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Tamara Drewe, Leaving), instead holding out for escapist Hollywood blockbusters, which almost across the board have turned out to be big stinking turds (The Wolfman, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia, Salt; and in Alice‘s case, audiences bought their tickets in droves anyway). Shutter Island did decent business, but it seems to have been forgotten since its early spring release date. The Crazies, Kick Ass, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, and Red all performed admirably enough, but there’s no way those genre films are going to be racking up nominations. And movies like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Secretariat mixed a moderate amount of critical and commercial success, but not enough to capture the zeitgeist. Even audience favorite Clint Eastwood is having a miserable showing with his latest, Hereafter.
Sure, some of Fincher’s commercial success was probably due to the fact that Facebook and social networking in general are current hot button topics. In fact, as the release date for The Social Network got closer and closer, everyone was talking about how they “weren’t going to see that Facebook movie because it looks stupid,” seemingly projecting their ire for the film’s subject matter onto the film itself, a film designed more as a discussion starter than the commercial plug everyone in the country seemingly assumed it to be. But early reviews and extremely positive word-of-mouth quickly turned that cultural tide around. In my mind, the movie’s success was a no-brainer from the beginning. In addition to being one of the most cultural relevant films of the year, David Fincher should never be underestimated. He’s a visual perfectionist on the level of Stanley Kubrick, and he’s always had an uncanny ability to cast well, and then to follow that through with superb communication with his actors. Add a top-notch Aaron Sorkin script to the mix, and there was really no where else for this film to go.
In fact, if there’s a problem with the film at all, it probably lies with that script; or perhaps not so much the script itself, but a rather pedestrian story that, while extremely well-told and well-executed, never breaks past its genre of a flashback-heavy courtroom procedural. Sorkin’s dialogue is so tight and polished that it illustrates an additional level of confidence for him as a writer; he’s actually taken a step back and let a degree of control go. The final achievement is a script that feels a little more natural than even his best work, the result of forgoing a writer’s insecure need of overly relied-upon signature cadences and shorthands. But the story itself lacks the extra punch to make the film a true masterpiece, and I’d argue that Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac are still superior jewels in Fincher’s crown.
Fincher certainly made a fantastic choice with his three lead actors. Eisenberg nails Zuckerberg in a way that his career to-date couldn’t have predicted; and it simply seems to be a case of casting the right actor for the right job. Eisenberg is naturally intelligent, intellectual, and hyper-aware, and with an encouraging director like Fincher who obviously allowed him the comfort and safety of bringing as much of his own personality to the part as possible, it was one of those perfect fits between actor and subject. Even Zuckerberg has praised Eisenberg about how well he played the part and how truthful that portrayal was. Justin Timberlake, over the last few years, has constantly been proving himself to be a genuinely talented actor, from his comedic ease on SNL to the growing dramatic chops he’s been developing over film after film. Again, Sean Parker is a perfect fit for Timberlake. He’s smart enough that he understands the reality of the character and the motivations that make him tick, but he’s also lived similar experiences via his own celebrity, giving him first-hand insight into the kinds of extravagance, entitlement, opportunism, and showmanship that other actors don’t necessarily have at their fingertips, to aid him in the illuminating of that more charismatic, extroverted, and showy side of Parker. And Timberlake’s baggage he brings with him into the role, his name-brand popularity and image, simply creates a shorthand with the audience that strengthens his immediate acceptance as the character. Finally, Andrew Garfield, easily the best actor of the three, nails the trickiest role of the three. It takes an actor with Garfield’s level of craft and natural confidence to really let his balls hang out, so to speak. It’s considerably easier to play determined, or to sink into the skin of a character decidedly hell-bent on a certain goal. What’s not as simple is to allow yourself to be vulnerable or to allow yourself to be naive. In both this film and Never Let Me Go, Garfield demonstrates a confidence decades beyond his age that allows him to pull his emotional core outside of himself and hold it there, exposed, without judgement or hyper-awareness of it, but simply naked in its emotional reality. It’s the same thing that Sean Penn made a name doing for himself back in the 80’s, although in a slightly different way that was as much a part of his natural personality as these two performances are of Garfield’s; yet the end result is markedly similar and evocatively truthful. And Garfield’s performance is so confident and natural that it’s also remarkably subtle, and in a movie like this, even deflects attention from itself and back to Eisenberg, which selflessly serves the film on yet another level.
The success of The Social Network ultimately owes itself to three things: this triumvirate of performances, Fincher’s flawless execution, and our cultural fascination with what it takes to be a billionaire. The success of the film is a major coup for Fincher considering it’s really his first non-genre film. There’s no director who does crime films and serial killers better; we’ve seen that before with Se7en and Zodiac, and no doubt will again with the upcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which finds him back in familiar territory once again. Even most of the rest of his filmography, from Fight Club to The Game to The Panic Room, are all essentially genre thrillers. Alien3— sci-fi thriller. And Benjamin Button, with its high concept idea and effects heavy production, can hardly be considered a traditional talking-heads drama. So this is really the first time we’ve seen Fincher flying unrestrained without a lot of his usual technical and technological fallbacks, relying almost solely on script and performance. It’s sort of amusing then, that rather than casting actual brothers to play the Winklevoss twins, he went the route of heavy-laden effects work to at least have something to engage that part of his brain. Not that anyone should have expected anything less of Fincher. Nevertheless, there really isn’t any room for directorial sleight-of-hand, and the film lives or dies purely based on the writing and acting.
I think perhaps where the film may finally go slightly wrong is in not skewering Zuckerberg enough. For all of the talk before it was released about how bad it was going to make him look, and for all of the positioning the real Zuckerberg was doing to dispute the validity and accuracy of the film, The Social Network is surprisingly sympathetic towards him. As Rashida Jones’ character Marilyn Delpy says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying too hard to be one.” Over the course of the film, we’ve seen how anti-social a person Zuckerberg truly is; covetous of popularity and yet clueless about social interaction, he’s simply too high-strung and highly critical to be a social animal. So he’s created the ultimate tool to achieve those social things he can never attain on his own: popularity, friendship, community, and ultimately love, through the depersonalized distance of a keyboard and the internet. Yes, now there’s an app for that, too. It brings to mind a movie from 1984 called Electric Dreams that got a lot of play on the premium cable channels at the time, wherein a nerdy shut-in buys himself a computer, which ends up achieving self-awareness through a typical 80’s leap of science, then attempts to woo his attractive neighbor with the computer playing the role of Cyrano. The difference is that Zuckerberg has created a version of an 80’s nerd fantasy in the post-millennial real world, and he’s snookered the rest of the world into validating it and playing along with him. But finally, through his own social failure and self-emasculation, Zuckerberg is ultimately a sympathetic character. In fact, some of his portrayal has made people ponder whether or not his inability to comprehend some of the privacy issues regarding Facebook isn’t a lack of empathy, but a near-Asbergers level of lacking social awareness.
And so, as perfectly executed and on-the-nose as The Social Network is, it ultimately lets its target out of the dunking booth before pinging the bulls-eye. There were certainly deeper, darker points that could have been made about our corporate consumer culture, capitalism, and what it takes to succeed in this climate. Or about the celebrity and status-worship that have become a national religion, and the fact that people who work at minimum wage jobs as well as those in the ever-declining middle-class drool over television shows like MTV’s Cribs, tabloid magazines, and reality television, telling themselves that someday it may be their turn to make the big money if they only buy enough lottery tickets or find a willing media outlet where they can prostitute their shame; while doing absolutely nothing to educate or improve themselves or find a way to realistically work through and solve their problems. They’ll continue to stuff their faces with ice cream and potato chips while watching The Biggest Loser, a show that masquerades its contempt and belittlement of the uneducated and unaware as armchair empowerment for the willpower-deprived. We live in a world where everyone is so busy sticking a fork into any hand that gets near their piece of the pie, that almost no one is trying to make the world a better place through hard work and grass roots community-building. It’s a me-me-me America, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, all take and no give. Just people ballooning into diabetic comas on sugar water and fast food, until their fat asses can’t sit on a toilet seat without breaking it, and every major organ in their body is going into shutdown as a result of the poison we keep shoveling into our systems, from the physical to the emotional to the anti-spiritual (and when I say anti-spiritual, I’m talking about things that are unhealthy for you spiritually, which has nothing to do with whether or not you’re religious). And this is a crucial time in the globalization of technology where unification is vital. Instead of deifying the almighty dollar or the few individuals who now represent it, instead of feeding a corporate-run economy where only a few corporations sit at the top of the pyramid, we should be working to deconstruct what has caused us to build this system that takes from the poor and feeds the rich. Yet it’s often the people it steals from the most who continue to feed the beast out of blind ignorance and an inability to look beyond the very lifestyle causing the deterioration of their own health, keeping them bound to their low-income, nutrition-poor existence like a hamster on a spinning wheel or a human battery hooked into The Matrix. If this world isn’t working for you, get out of the McDrive-thru, put down your goddamned McSandwich, and quit that McJob that generates all of your McCash for your McEmployer and the McCorporation that’s stealing your McLife.
Mark Zuckerberg has spoken out and said that one of The Social Network‘s inaccuracies is that he’s had a steady girlfriend he’s lived with since before the Facebook court cases, meaning he’s not been harboring some unrequited crush on the long lost Erica Albright. Perhaps he simply doesn’t want people to think he’s a pussy, but ironically enough, this information serves to take away the greatest thing that makes his portrayal in The Social Network a sympathetic one– the fact that he may have learned something from his ordeal and be repentant. And if Sorkin simply made this up for a good final dramatic scene and a positive, uplifting note to end on, which seems likely, why give Zuckerberg, and thereby corporate America, such an easy escape clause? Really nailing the politics, big business, and sociology of our times would have created the kind of timeless classic people would still be studying in 50 or 100 years, perhaps pointing to as the moment the pin was pulled on our current dysfunctional economic structure. As it is, Fincher’s going to have to settle for simply one of the year’s best instead of a masterpiece for the ages.