The Social Network: A Poignant Portrait of Genius, Nuerosis

Watching The Social Network, one gets the impression that the social networking virtuoso is manically searching for something—something he wouldn’t recognize, even if he did happen to find it.

There are certain stories that we just don’t hear—like about a Victoria’s Secret Angel who loses her ability to do advanced calculus or a renowned chef with an unflappable case of writer’s block. For whatever reason, we want to hear stories about pianists who lose their hands to wood-chippers or photographers who go blind from shrapnel or excessive childhood masturbation—I guess we’re just f*cked up like that.

Or, perhaps, it’s because they just make for the best stories.

Director David Fincher’s (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) newest cinematic gem, The Social Network (in theaters on Oct. 1), is another one of those stories, the tale of a social outcast’s quest to prove himself through—you guessed it, what else?—becoming, quite possibly, the most prominent and prolific social butterfly in the history of human communication.

Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland, Zombieland), in a brilliant, career-defining performance that is almost eerie in the way it captures the general aura of an introverted genius plagued by his own neurosis, portrays Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg—who, at the age of 26, is the world’s youngest billionaire, presiding over a company valued at over $27 billion.

Relative newcomer Andrew Garfield, who will also be headlining as Spiderman in the franchise’s upcoming 2012 reboot, plays opposite Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg as the driven super-genius’s best friend—not to mention Facebook’s co-founder and CFO, though Zuckerberg would probably prefer it not to be mentioned—Eduardo Saverin.

Working from acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilson’s War, TV’s The West Wing) adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction, albeit heavily dramatized, book The Accidental Billionaires, Fincher somehow manages to knit a very complex, incestuous web of feuds and legal skirmishes into the larger story of the general founding of the social networking giant without sacrificing much in the realm of characterization—which, after all, is really what makes the story of the founding of every procrastinator’s worst nightmare (or, best friend, depending upon one’s predilection toward S&M) so incredibly compelling.

And, believe me, The Social Network is anything if not compelling. Attribute it to the brilliant performances from Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. Give credit to a surprisingly hilarious screenplay from Sorkin (not that the creator of Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip couldn’t be funny, but who would’ve expected that writing computer code, the origin of the quasi-troubling Facebook Poke and not getting laid at Harvard could be so amusing?). Chalk it up to another one of Fincher’s directorial victories.

But, whichever way one cuts it, watching The Social Network isn’t like watching a predictable, formulaic Hollywood template film, the kind that would be used to create generic garage sale signs in Microsoft Word if it were one of Zuckerberg’s computer creations—in many ways, it’s like watching a particularly heated and juicy fight between one’s own vaguely off-the-grid friends, the type of people who see no problem in violating the sacred “Every Other Urinal” rule or wearing flip-flops in the New England winter, in that one watches with feverish intensity as the punches are thrown and is bound to be shocked at how quickly and effortlessly two hours can pass.

The fact that Zuckerberg is the definition of a troubled antihero, conflicted and contradictory in his ways, is really what is bound to leave audiences spellbound, not entirely dissimilar to the way zoo visitors are likely to feel while watching gorillas pelt one another with feces. He’s the type of person whom one may expect to wear cargo shorts equipped with curiously voluminous pockets, the type of pockets that leave one wondering what on God’s green Earth he totes around in them. (A decent guess? Pokémon cards. The holographic ones—after all, he is a billionaire.) Yet, he’s also the savviest judge of collegiate cool, obsessed with achieving social status and, in doing so, happened to take a half-baked dorm room prank to a multi-billion company with over 500 million users in fewer than six years.

But, as we watch a poignant illustration of a young, ambitious entrepreneur bring over 500 million people together from around the world, one is slapped in the face with the irony that it also manages to pull him apart from everyone in his life, exiling him even deeper into the abyss and away from the validation that he so desperately sought to achieve.

What makes The Social Network so damn good is that it’s everything you expect it to be, while also managing to be something entirely different. What may just be a trite marketing slogan for Disney Resorts is actually applicable to The Social Network—there really is something for everyone. Those rainy-day, twice-a-year moviegoers who are expecting a simple, concise explanation as to why they’re able to ill-advisedly post partially-naked pictures of their droopy-eyed, slack-jawed selves holding the ubiquitous red Solo cup for the entire Web-surfing populous to indiscriminately view at all hours of the day will delight in what they surely will see as a straight-forward account of the rise of Facebook. However, those armchair filmmakers who read the trades like a sorority girl reads nutrition labels on various pints of Ben & Jerry’s (I find that, at 240 calories per serving, Cherry Garcia is quite reasonable) will see a considerably more complex film, a movie that transcends what could have easily been a Zuckerbeg/Facebook biopic instead of what it is in actuality—a portrait of humankind’s quest for validation and justification in a world that is dangerously obsessed with status and station.

Following the special advance screening, Eisenberg somewhat self-deprecatingly revealed that he’s terrified to watch any of his films—which, is really too bad, because Eisenberg (who, by the way, has more than held his own in past performances opposite screen legends Michael Douglas, Jeff Daniels and Woody Harrelson) has the type of breakout performance in The Social Network that could very well establish him as one of the preeminent dramatic actors of his generation and potentially earn him an Oscar nomination come January.

And, speaking of Oscar, Fincher and Sorkin could very well also be conservative bets for nominations this year.

Justin Timberlake, who seems to be trading in his musical ability to loosen the elastic on ladies’ delicates for a full-time sojourn to Hollywood, makes for an undeniably ironic Sean Parker, the founder of Napster who managed to squirm his way into the power structure of the early Facebook organization, successfully ousting Eduardo Saverin from the start-up’s corridors of power and leading to the cataclysmic combustion of Zuckerberg’s relationship with Saverin (ironic, because it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Parker has been responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the loss of countless earnings for Timberlake and his former N’Sync band mates, which, by virtue of association, means fewer trips into space for Lance Bass).

It’s not that Timberlake doesn’t nail the role of Parker. He does—and hard, too (kind of like how rapper Ray J has been known to nail things). The issue with Timberlake’s performance is that Parker is meant to be hated and many inaugurates of the Facebook Generation will simply find it too unpalatable to spend the duration of the film hating the very man who was once credited with bringing sexy back.

By the end of the film, it’s safe to say that one learns a little bit about the only man in the world who has total and unfettered access to all of our Facebook profiles. Really, he’s not entirely unlike a Vietnam soldier trekking through the Mekong Delta: Zuckerberg seems to find Asian women sexy and has no idea what exactly he’s doing. Watching The Social Network, one gets the impression that the social networking virtuoso is manically searching for something—something he wouldn’t recognize, even if he did happen to find it. In fact, by the film’s end, one gets the sense that the 26-year-old billionaire from White Plains, New York has just woken up with the imprint of a body beside him in the sheets and a note scented with perfume (something classy—Chanel No. 5, I’d say), and he’s still trying to decide whether he’s just been made love to, or, well, you know…

And, the beauty of the overarching meaning of The Social Network is that, just like that picture in your Facebook album entitled “Name That Stain” that immortalizes the wet spot on the sofa next to your sleeping, fetus-mimicking body, it’s open to interpretation.