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For Your Consideration: 'The Social Network'

David Fincher's The Social Network has received nearly universal praise from film critics, even winning Best Picture at the Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes. This is beyond my understanding, given how meager the film is: the story of how college high jinks make Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the social networking Web site Facebook, into the youngest billionaire on the planet, it is a sort of Bildungsroman for the Noughties, success porn for the generation coming out of college into a disastrous recession. (The real Zuckerberg has taken issue with parts of the film's version of his life.) The backdrop, in the grand tradition of college-prank films, is that mythical collection of ivy-covered halls where the dorkiest misfits in the world somehow become big men on campus. Zuckerberg's hacking antics bring him into conflict with university administrators: as even Lawrence Summers, then still President of Harvard, where Zuckerberg and Co. were students, is drawn into the furor over just who created Facebook, there were many references to classics of the genre like National Lampoon's Animal House (so memorably parodied in the television show Futurama -- "Robot House!!") and Real Genius (recalled in a pathetic Caribbean Night party at a Jewish fraternity). When Zuckerberg and his friend Eduardo Saverin (the somewhat nondescript Andrew Garfield) work out an algorithm to compare the hotness of all of Harvard's female undergraduates in a side-by-side online competition -- one of the kernels of the Facebook idea and the digital age equivalent of the panty raid, I guess -- Saverin writes the formula on their dorm room window, an allusion to a similar scene in A Beautiful Mind, continuing the theme of the Ivy League outsider.

For its spot-on evocation of the narcissistic, high-achieving undergraduates it portrays, Social Network may be a convincing documentation of the mainstream culture of the last decade, but it is as dull and mindlessly time-consuming as the Web site its lead character created. Having tried and mostly abandoned Facebook as a pastime, I am bemused by the site's continued popularity, which seems mostly to serve to reconnect people whom time was meant to disconnect, and likely for good reason. Aaron Sorkin, adapting a book by Ben Mezrich, writes dialogue that is whip-smart but also intolerably superior at times. Sorkin's best work has been in the smaller bites of television episodes, especially for the outstanding series The West Wing, but none of his film screenplays (The American President, A Few Good Men, or this one) has the same concentrated bite in terms of characters or wordplay. Particularly disappointing is the one-sided maleness of the screenplay: besides the girlfriend whose breakup with Zuckerberg supposedly drives his need to succeed (Rooney Mara, in a minor role) there is little more than a raft-load of bimbos who circle like vultures around the promise of success. Where are the brilliant, funny, self-possessed women of Sorkin's television work?

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Jesse Eisenberg is something of a cipher as Zuckerberg, a study in pursed lips, blank stares, and clipped, cutting retorts. He is a dead ringer for Zuckerberg, but it is hardly a performance worthy of the nominations for lead actor awards he has been receiving. The nominations for best ensemble cast are no less mystifying. A large proportion of the movie's action consists of people staring at computer screens and answering questions at legal depositions, as Zuckerberg is sued by other students who claim to have had a stake in the founding of Facebook, including Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin brothers who were working on a social networking site at the same time (both played, by a digital sleight of hand, by Armie Hammer -- the great-grandson of Armand Hammer, who has found his way into an acting career). Justin Timberlake has a very meta-L.A. turn as ultra-cool, suave Sean Parker, the founder of Napster who gets mixed up in the mad build-up of Facebook into the megalith it has since become.

Does the directing of David Fincher somehow make all of this into an award-worthy picture? Maybe. There is a certain Los Angeles charm to the product, a fast-moving, quick-shifting slickness that may explain the film's appeal. A hip indie score by Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame, and Atticus Ross certainly does not hurt either: I loved the synthesizer and bass-heavy arrangement of Grieg's music In the Hall of the Mountain King from the incidental music for Peer Gynt, heard in the beautiful, balletic regatta sequence at Henley-on-Thames and would not be upset to see the score win an Academy Award. The amped-up maleness of the story is reminiscent of the only other Fincher film I really liked, Fight Club. The hard-hitting but superficial qualities are too much like the Fincher films I have really hated, Zodiac, The Panic Room, Se7en, Alien³, and the worst of all, his last film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

In the Washington area, Social Network is still being screened at the West End Cinema.

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