Saturday, October 23, 2010

Geeking out to 'The Social Network'

'The Social Network' - a Page 6 version of Mark Zuckerberg's rise from dorm room geek to billionaire baller – is a compelling, though highly clichéd, picture of Silicon Valley via 'Girls Gone Wild.'

The film chronicles the meteoric rise of the now-ubiquitous social networking site Facebook. Through its evolution, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (West Wing), along with director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), have brought us a hackneyed morality tale - one in which the losers inevitably win, but at a cost that renders them impotent and alone.

Before they even role the opening credits, a smug and condescending Zuckerberg (a curly-haired Jesse Eisenberg) chides his girlfriend in a Cambridge pub until she finally relents to his overbearing verbal assault.

Girls won’t like him, she says, but not because he’s a geek. It’s because he’s an asshole.

And he most certainly is; at least in the Sorkin-crafted script, where his drive to create Facebook is ultimately a quest for chics and popularity. His parallel quest to join an exclusive final club is also a supposed motivation behind this obsessive personality.

It doesn’t matter that the real Zuckerberg has a fiancé – an Asian-American medical school student he’s been dating since Harvard – because there he is again in the closing scene, pathetically refreshing a Web browser that might elicit an accepted Facebook request from that same girl he slighted. In Hollywood, nerds only get one chance.

The Web and its beautiful, seedy possibilities shroud the script like a magic cloak of glitter and doom. Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) pops in to seize Zuckerberg’s imaginations and entrepreneurial pursuits. Parker is the enigmatic Web veteran, jet setting from NYC sushi joints to Palo Alto coke parties, and vying for Zuck to join this wild and crazy ride.

Parker is a disruptor, a person whose peer-to-peer downloading service upended the entire music industry - or at least lead to its demise. And his character is, if at once sexy and exciting, ultimately conniving, and paranoid – a drug-addled crook. After all, these punk kids are destroying our once-ironclad business model. Napster killed CDs, and Facebook is helping slowly choke newspapers to death. But this can’t last. They’re in way over their heads, right?

Some scenes are meant to induce both horror and chuckles at the excess of 20-something billionaires: Parker’s coke snorting session off a young intern’s midriff; Zuckerberg’s 24-hour-party of a Palo Alto ranch. But these actions aren’t much different from a young sports phenom who suddenly scores a multi-million dollar NBA contract. And the teenage horseplay (ziplining into the pool?) certainly doesn't reach the nadir of Hollywood starlets like Lindsay Lohan. Are we holding hardworking, whitebread, Harvard dropouts to a higher standard than everyone else?

Zuckerberg’s motives for Internet dominance are constantly skewed to show selfish, juvenile inclinations. In reality, the young prodigy – maybe detached and perhaps a bit arrogant – was coding and innovating at a young age, working from Exeter to Harvard, constantly developing ideas and start-ups throughout his teens. But in “The Social Network’s” besides being a proficient hacker, Zuckerberg is mostly a one-dimensional jerk.

Even his antagonists come off as snide and self-obsessed. The Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) are entitled, country club brats. Their quest to sue Facebook is plagued with comic landmines: the counsel of their father's in-house attorney; a brief, though tumultuous, meeting with then Harvard President Larry Summers (brilliant casting of Summers-critic Douglas Urbanski).

The one main character that comes off as genuine and well intentioned is Eduardo Saverin. Eduardo is the company's initial CFO, the man who bankrolled the venture but wanted "the party to end at 11." He is the cool, rational one – a sober participant who ends up getting screwed by Zuckerberg and friends. Saverin even makes one of those final clubs that Zuck so desperately aspired to.

The movie is based on the book, “The Accidental Billionaires,” a work of “non-fiction” that cites Saverin as its primary source. The author, Ben Mezrich, makes a disclosure statement explaining how he “changed or imagined” scenes in order to move the story forward. Even Doubleday’s own publicist has ceded that the work is not “reportage.”

For his part, Sorkin is on record showing his distaste for the Internet. And while the Social Network claims to expose its dirty side on the business end, another of this year’s movies, “Catfish,” shows how people can become ensnared in the intricate ruse of the Web, constructed by people like Mark Zuckerberg.

You might argue that Zuckerberg helped perpetuate an escapist fantasy, where people play caricatures of themselves on screen, and various types of falsehoods get played out in lieu of reality. You can also say he knowingly produced Facebook to create a more compelling narrative about his life, and ultimately a lot of money.

The same arguments can just as easily be leveled at Mr. Sorkin for making this convincing and very fun-to-watch movie.

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