David Fincher’s The Social Network is bookended by sequences that take up the question of whether or not its protagonist—Facebook cofounder and barely postadolescent billionaire Mark Zuckerberg—is an asshole. That the verdicts come courtesy of a series of female observers is at once unusual in light of the film’s masculine thrust (all of the major characters are young men) and perfectly apposite considering its major underlying theme. Which, by the way, has less to do with the conception and consequences of social media than a different kind of complex closed circuit: the male ego.
Happily, The Social Network, freely (and brilliantly) adapted by The West Wing perp Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s 2009 bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, frames this investigation in explicitly comic terms. Things are uptempo from that very first scene, which finds Zuckerberg talking himself right out of a relationship with his smart and pretty girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). Her supportive concern that her partner’s desire to get into the most prestigious Harvard “Finals Club” fraternity evaporates in the face of his galling, insistent condescension (“You’re going to come with me to parties and meet a lot of people you might not otherwise get to meet”).
What makes the scene so bracing—besides its breathtaking neo-screwball pace, managed by Fincher and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall as a series of perfectly interspersed reverse-shot volleys—is how oblivious Mark remains to his own awfulness. Before leaving the table in a wounded huff—and thus leading her spurned boyfriend to write a vicious blog post about, among other things, her bra size, and then to create an even nastier Internet site that pits headshots of female Harvard students against one another in peer-voted online smackdowns—Erica asks Mark if he’d ever had any interest in taking up rowing. Eisenberg’s stricken expression—the only one he displays in the scene beyond the character’s default half-lidded smirk—cuts to the core of the prologue, and by extension, the film’s true subject. Feelings of inadequacy prompt outsized ambition; The Social Network imagines a young man’s violent remapping of virtual terrain as an attempt to impress a girl. Read the rest of Adam Nayman’s review of The Social Network, opening night film in the 48th New York Film Festival.