Review: The Social Network

Is the story of the social networking website Facebook really so interesting that it needed to be turned into a movie? Facebook, after all, is phenomenally successful, has half a billion members and is ranked just behind Google as the world’s most accessed web site. Why would we not want to learn more about it, since so many of us spend so much of our electronic lives on its site?

So perhaps The Social Network was inevitable, but the movie that you get tells a story that struck me as less than compelling. Most of the characters in this movie are more than a bit annoying. Perhaps that comes with territory. After all, Harvard University and Silicon Valley are full of socially inept nerds. Apparently at Harvard University it is much more important to get into the Phoenix S-K Final Club than it is to date a bombshell.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. No doubt, Zuckerberg is irascible in real life, but it is hard to imagine him being quite as impertinent and annoying as he is portrayed in this movie. In fact, if looking for a reason to skip The Social Network, do it so you don’t have to spend two hours of your life inhabiting the world of this annoying, self-centered nerd. Zuckerberg is way more annoying than dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) in the movie Ghost Town. Pincus at least had comic relief in the form of Greg Kinnear. The closest thing we get to comic relief in The Social Network is Joseph Mazzello, who plays Dustin Moskovitz, the effusive entrepreneur behind the late music-sharing site Napster. Otherwise, the movie is framed solidly in a lawyer’s office, where Zuckerberg is forced into a lengthy deposition as part of a civil suit. This frame results in frequent flashbacks.

If one has to say what this movie is about, then it is not really so much about the rise of Facebook as it is a look inside the insular brain of Mark Zuckerberg which, quite frankly, is a very unattractive place. Zuckerberg is portrayed as one of these brilliant, socially inept but nonetheless gifted individuals able to discern patterns meaningless to the rest of us. He is a quintessential hacker and geek, constantly in jeans and T-shirts who excels at tuning out reality around him. All he really knows is that like most Harvard students, he needs to prove himself, so he must do something really, really big. The clue to Facebook’s success, he quickly discerns, will be exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Originally, it is designed as a site for Harvard students only, with all the prestige that implies. It is only after Facebook has networked most of the nation’s academic elite that it slowly expands its boundaries out to normal plebes like you and I.

Along the way, there are other less annoying individuals to encounter. These include the haughty flaxen haired Winklevoss twins, who feel cheated when Zuckerberg backs out of his commitment to help build a Facebook-like site for Harvard that they had planned first. They eventually feel compelled to sue him for alleged breach of contract and for stealing their ideas. The Winklevoss twins, somehow portrayed by just one actor Armie Hammer, encapsulate everything we loathe and love about Harvard students: ambitious, handsome, athletic and fanatical about their participation on the Harvard rowing club.

Andrew Garfield, playing Zuckerberg’s roommate and business partner Eduardo Saverin, is as close as we get to an interesting character in this movie. While he has the requisite business skills, he is not agile enough to move in the Silicon Valley world that opens up to them after they meet Moskovitz. He soon finds himself estranged when a closer relationship develops between Zuckerman and Moskovitz. Moskovitz seems determined to recapture his faded Napster glory using Zuckerman as his vehicle. Fortunately for Moskovitz, Zuckerman’s insular nature makes him reasonably easy to impress and manipulate, and his Silicon Valley skills ensures Facebook gets a proper Silicon Valley start up experience.

In some ways, this movie is an ode to the hacker lifestyle, and for an information technology guy like me this world is comfortable territory. The problem is that it just does not translate well into celluloid. While managing to be a reasonably faithful portrayal of the origins of Facebook, it is excessively nerdish and chock full of annoying characters. In honing close to reality, it loses much of its animus. This is mostly a movie of nerds and lawyers talking to each other, with extensive flashbacks. With all the lawyers, it could use some Perry Mason moments, but it has none. It really tells us nothing new or interesting. If you are hoping to have a better understanding of the social networking phenomenon, the movie will likely leave you empty handed. Instead, you may find yourself grateful for the movie’s end, so you can remove the bad taste of Mark Zuckerberg and the other annoying characters in this movie from your mouth.

As a realistic portrayal of the origins of Facebook, the movie probably hews fairly close to the truth. The truth though happens to be a whole lot less interesting that the phenomenal success of Facebook would suggest. While technically well done and reasonably well acted, there is not much there there, which means you can probably find better use of two hours and ten dollars.

Nice try, guys, but because this story is really not very interesting, you did not ascend much out of mediocrity. 2.8 on my four-point scale.

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