October 13, 2010

The Social Network

October 13, 2010

For the last two weeks, “The Social Network” has been number one at the box office. It’s also garnered uniformly excellent reviews, so naturally I have to put in my two-cents’ worth. I’m afraid I’m not nearly as enamored of the film as most of the critics have been.

It tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, through a series of flashbacks that take place during two separate legal hearings, one because the entitled Winklevoss twins claim that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them at Harvard, the other because Zuckerberg’s former best friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin, wants his fair share of the company.

As lawyers ask pointed questions, the various parties involved space out and remember key incidents about how Zuckerberg conceived of and implemented the (in)famous social networking site. The portrait of the young billionaire that emerges is not a pretty one.

Is it accurate? Who knows? More importantly, is it entertaining? Not quite.

This may not be a fair comparison, but I can’t help thinking of “The Social Network” in light of a movie I discussed in my September 28th post, “Remains of the Day.” In a way, the films are polar opposites, one properly British, the other brashly American; one historical, the other contemporary; one quiet and thoughtful, the other loud and frenetic.

But there are important similarities. Both movies move liberally between the past and present and feature a central character who is, on the surface at least, unlikeable. I have been trying to figure out why “Remains of the Day” works so well for me, while “The Social Network” doesn’t.

The earlier movie incorporates its flashbacks so seamlessly that the journey into the future is also a journey into the past. Not so “The Social Network,” in which the characters swivel their chairs away from the current proceedings, gazing blankly into the distance before they go back in time only to be rudely recalled by one of their interrogators into the here and now. Talk about clunky. For a two-hour movie, the flashbacks are too frequent and intrusive.

The key difference, though, is the central character. In his own way, Anthony Hopkins’ James Stephens is every bit as narrow, dogmatic, and certain of his own world as Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerman. Yet I can’t help remembering Stephens’ telling flick of the fingers when his love interest invades his space, a small action that reveals his longing, ambivalence, and total inability to say what he feels.

How does “The Social Network” demonstrate Zuckerberg’s romantic ineptitude? Not with a beautifully crafted image but with a long, unpleasant scene during which he insults his girlfriend, shows himself to be a worse snob than the people he accuses of excluding him, and behaves like a complete bore. Thankfully, she has the good sense to dump him.

Having failed at “real” relationships, the movie tells us, he devises a way to succeed at “virtual” ones, a too-convenient explanation of what motivates him to create Facebook.

Is the problem here in the acting? Maybe. In the writing? Most definitely. Instead of opening up a flawed character, all mixed motives and warring impulses, the screenplay oversimplifies him and, in the process, reduces him to a cliché.

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