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REVIEW | Generation in Action: The Social Mores of "The Social Network"

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 23, 2010 at 2:23AM

The persona of Mark Zuckerberg depicted by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher's "The Social Network" is equal parts parts Ferris Bueller and Sammy Glick. Like Bueller, Zuckerberg lives his life free from any rules except his own. He replaces Bueller's charisma with pure stamina, however, reflecting Glick's relentless drive to overcome competition despite impossible odds. But Bueller and Glick, unlike Zuckerberg, both exist exclusively in the fictional realm. Glick stems from Budd Schulberg's seminal 1941 novel about a Hollywood mogul's rise to fame, and Bueller comes from the youth-sensitive mind of John Hughes. Nevertheless, the real Zuckerberg has little to do with his onscreen manifestation beyond providing the original source material. In "The Social Network," Zuckerberg has symbolic definition, epitomizing the power lust of a nascent generation for the first time in its short history.
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The persona of Mark Zuckerberg depicted by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher's "The Social Network" is equal parts parts Ferris Bueller and Sammy Glick. Like Bueller, Zuckerberg lives his life free from any rules except his own. He replaces Bueller's charisma with pure stamina, however, reflecting Glick's relentless drive to overcome competition despite impossible odds. But Bueller and Glick, unlike Zuckerberg, both exist exclusively in the fictional realm. Glick stems from Budd Schulberg's seminal 1941 novel about a Hollywood mogul's rise to fame, and Bueller comes from the youth-sensitive mind of John Hughes. Nevertheless, the real Zuckerberg has little to do with his onscreen manifestation beyond providing the original source material. In "The Social Network," Zuckerberg has symbolic definition, epitomizing the power lust of a nascent generation for the first time in its short history.

Scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the movie owes much to the rapid-fire chatter now considered "The West Wing" creator's trademark. Tossing around the initial outline for Facebook in Harvard dorm rooms, Zuckerberg and his peers engage in hyper-intelligent technobabble at a sizzling pace, at times suggesting the rhythms of a Preston Sturges comedy without the constant yuks. Sorkin cleverly spoofs Ivy League elitism with better accuracy than "Good Will Hunting" by injecting it with adrenaline. The pre-credits opening break-up scene, where Zuckerberg's frustrated girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) dumps him for patronizing her, instantly establishes Sorkin's meteoric universe. The conversation flies in four or five directions at once, addressing Zuckerberg's desire to access Harvard's exclusive "final clubs," the IQ levels of people in China, and whether or not Erica would prefer athletic students on the crew team instead of scrawny guys like him. Real people (none that I know, anyway) don't exactly talk like this, but again, "The Social Network" has more to do with the way contemporary twentysomethings perceive each other and themselves than the reality of their discourse. For a world predominantly occupied by guys in their early twenties, "The Social Network" is an unconventional contender for the headiest American movie of the year.

"The ability to make money doesn't impress anyone around here," Zuckerberg says, illustrating that his goals lie further from wealth than complete world domination. The origin for Facebook recounted in Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaire" implies Zuckerberg started the site to meet girls, but Sorkin's adaptation attributes Zuckerberg's secret to a searching for the greatest idea ever. "You are probably going to be a very successful computer person," Erica says just before calling him an asshole. For the remainder of the running time, Zuckerberg appears intent on turning that epithet into a badge of honor. Before all else, this characterization gives "The Social Network" its underlying zeitgeist appeal.

Set in the fall of 2003, the story is littered with period specificity. Technology still loomed large seven years ago, but the details were different. The dominant platforms for online interaction were MySpace and Friendster. Nobody sported an iPhone or browsed YouTube. Today, most plugged-in young people assume they live in public, but Zuckerberg sounds surprised when a friend knows he got dumped -- forgetting that he blogged about it two hours earlier. Zuckerberg alone may not have changed that, but he puts a tangible face on a massive linguistic shift.

By regularly flashing forward to the two lawsuits he met in the wake of launching the site, the movie's structure acknowledges Zuckerberg's overnight popularity. His longtime friend and former business partner, Eduardo Saverin (future "Spider-Man" Andrew Garfield) rages against Zuckerberg for diminishing his friend's stake in the company, while a pair of uptight Harvard twins claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. Sorkin makes it look like everyone's partially right, but Zuckerberg remains either indifferent to the complaints of his former colleagues or completely impervious to their threats, a superhero for aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere.

Regardless of its new media backdrop, "The Social Network" has a polished framework that makes its dense proceedings go down with ease. The sex and drugs come with the territory, but also add a sensationalistic dimension that hints at the dangers courting Zuckerberg as his stature grows. Sorkin attributes the hedonistic indulgences not to his main subject but rather to Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the devil on Zuckerberg's shoulder whose role in Facebook's early years ended with a cocaine bust. Parker comes across as a pompous hustler whose egomania veers into delusional territory, leading to a neat juxtaposition with Zuckerberg's focused pragmatism. The least disciplined of the bunch, Parker naturally gets Sorkin's most ridiculous lines. "This is a once-in-a-generation-holy-shit idea," he exclaims during Facebook's early stage of integration. And then: "Private behavior's a relic of time gone by." Would anyone say that on the fly? Sorkin makes the case that these guys might.

Playing along with his screenwriter's tendency toward dramatic overstatement, Fincher directs the movie with the epic aspiration of capturing change in action. A pummeling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross frequently introduces the makings of an espionage tale, with Zuckerberg literally hacking his way to the top. The breathless rate at which "The Social Network" operates from its very first frame has a kinship with Christopher Nolan's equally speedy technique, but Fincher makes his saga both mesmerizing and fun. Although he moves forward with a constant, pulsing momentum and never stops, in doing so he accurately represents the thrill of sudden inspiration. At one point, Zuckerberg has an epiphany about the importance of including relationship statuses in Facebook profiles; he dashes home to his dorm room, tripping through the snow. It's an unusually exhilarating moment, one that should resonate for people in Zuckerberg's age bracket.

Eisenberg has played overambitious nerdy types before (his performance as an awkward teen in "Adventureland" could be seen as an audition reel for his latest role), but with Zuckerberg, the actor finds an ideal outlet for his strengths. Speeding up his familiar muttering to a stream-of-consciousness prattle, he becomes the perfect counterpoint to Garfield's sober-eyed innocence. The only blatant caricatures come from the Winklevoss twins, a spoiled, cartoonishly buff pair (both hilariously portrayed by Armie Hammer) whose anger sounds painfully blunt. "Let's get the frickin' nerd," one of them says after his brother pouts about Zuckerberg's alleged riff on their own social networking concept.

By contrast, everything Zuckerberg spouts has curious wisdom to it. "It's not going to be finished," he says of Facebook's development, "the way fashion is never finished." Positioning Facebook as a state of mind, Zuckerberg delivers the foundation for its underlying identity. While not exactly likable, he's admirably determined, and notably avoids facing his flaws by refusing to apologize to everyone he leaves behind. With business cards that read "I'm CEO, bitch" and a company that generates $25 billion, Zuckerberg wears his luxuries on his sleeve, revealing the asshole/nerd distinction established in the introductory scene as merely an illusion. Therein lies the generational statement.

Zuckerberg's habitual smugness is his defining factor, a forceful slapdown to older figures ("The Social Network" contains hardly any of them) intent on scoffing at his sense of initiative. The non-fictional Zuckerberg has publicly expressed his displeasure with the project, but there's no reason why he shouldn't try to appreciate the depth of his involuntary cinematic presence. With Zuckerberg, Fincher and Sorkin have found the first true twenty-first century anti-hero.

The shift in online communication had already begun when Facebook hit the scene, predating Zuckerberg's rise by a few years, but he's still the right figure to highlight the change. A key scene in the movie shows Zuckerberg and Saverin meet a few Facebook groupies at a Bill Gates lecture. Rather than jot down a phone number, the more forward girl makes an original proposal. "Facebook me," she says. The boys' ecstatic reaction to hearing their homegrown dent in the English language presents the opportunity to witness social mores in the midst of their evolution. The real Zuckerberg need not step forward, but he should at least feel a little flattered.

This article is related to: In Theaters, The Social Network