Friday, 15 October 2010

Review: The Social Network

David Fincher’s ultimate ‘facebook update’ arrives on the back of near-unanimous praise in the States and seems set to garner similar plaudits here. It will be interesting to see how the cultural milieu and Harvard minutiae play out with a UK audience. Better than some have predicted I imagine, given the appetite British audiences seem to have for dramas about privileged Americans.

Just as Michael Mann did with The Insider, Fincher succeeds in crafting a remarkably gripping film from bone dry materials. Given that The Social Network is essentially a series of dramatic and comedic vignettes involving self-absorbed computer geeks arguing over money and hunched over laptops for two hours that’s no mean feat. You could argue that Fincher has even less to work with dramatically than Mann had with Jeffrey Wigand’s tobacco crusade. There might be nothing at stake in this film, but it’s still fascinating and absorbing.

Fincher charts the period 2003-04, beginning with a drunken, post-dumped Mark Zuckerberg retreating to his Harvard dorm to post an online embittered rant about his ex – alongside an invitation to the campus to ‘rate’ the attractiveness of female undergrads. The near-sociopath Zuckerberg finds his services courted by the Brooks Brothers-esque duo of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (one man, much digital trickery).

When they engage him to create a Harvard exclusive friend site, his status – in the words of Facebook parlance – becomes ‘complicated’. Zuckerberg essentially plagiarises the basic concept and runs with it, inviting wealthy law graduate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) along as a partner.

The ensuing fallout results in two separate lawsuits, which drive the films quicksilver narrative. Oscillating between the financial and emotional support of Savarin and the slippery, faustian-lite charms of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in an irresistible performance full of white-hot energy and charm) Zuckerburg sees his site mutate into a global phenomenon at the expense of the one friendship he actually had.

Jesse Eisenberg is very, very effective in the lead role. He’s played nerdy assholes before but not with this level of awareness and nuance. The stellar cast are all ably served by a script from Aaron Sorkin that lends the film an emotional gravitas its actual events barely warrant. Personally I find Sorkin's over-elaborate, buff-shined dialogue in The West Wing fairly exhausting, but it fits these uber-geeks perfectly.

This is a fascinating film, an intriguing dramatisation of niche US-specific cultural events and a subsequent worldwide narrative that is still playing out, even as Facebook’s cultural cache is increasingly threatened by Twitter. It’s also very funny in places, with a couple of dynamic comic set pieces and some richly quotable dialogue.

At the heart of The Social Network is a fairly obvious paradox – socially inert individual creates world’s largest social interactive site. And as others have pointed out, you do wonder if Zuckerberg somehow imagined a future online world moulded in his own image; where users have lots of people as online buddies while leading an actual life of near-autistic isolation.

Lensed with cool proficiency and the director’s trademark visual chutzpah, this is nevertheless a more sober, confident Fincher, who may have created his richest, most resonant film here. It’s surely too early to proclaim the movie as masterpiece as some boldly have, but this is a vital work, alive with unlikely energy. Facebook haters might balk at the way Fincher lets the creators off the hook – no critical analysis here – but this is the first major film to engage with the seismic cultural shift that social networking has impacted on all our lives. David Hall ‘likes’ this. A lot.

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