If The Social Network was, say, a link David Fincher posted on his Facebook page, you would like it, share it, and leave a comment along the lines of "OMG Greatest Thing EVER!!!!" (Because where would the Internet be without hyperbole?) But in this case, your enthusiasm would be entirely justified.
Working from a jewel of a script by Aaron Sorkin, Fincher's examination of how socially awkward, brilliant computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) made billions of dollars creating Facebook, and in the process alienated everyone who came close to him, opens with a sharply written breakup scene between Harvard sophomore Mark and his then-girlfriend. Written, delivered, and crisply edited with rapid-fire wit that recalls not just Sorkin's best work but rivals such classics as His Girl Friday, the scene explains everything you need to know about the film's off-putting antihero. Namely, he's hyper-intelligent, he's smug about that fact, and he can parse words -- his own and others' -- as finely as a lawyer arguing in front of the Supreme Court. After he's cluelessly callous to her, she dumps him, whereupon Mark drags his broken heart to his dorm room, starts drinking, blogs about how terrible she is, and creates a website where people rate the relative hotness of girls at Harvard.
When his stunt crashes Harvard's Internet, Mark faces disciplinary action, but it also earns him enough notoriety that he gets a call from the Winklevoss twins, upperclassmen in good standing at Porcellian, one of the school's elite final clubs. They ask Mark to create a social-networking program for Harvard students, and he agrees. However, instead of shaping that site, Mark enlists some financial help from his best -- and only -- friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and creates an even better version of that idea. He calls it "The Facebook," and after it goes live their creation takes over Harvard, and they soon expand to other college campuses.
Although the fledgling company quickly finds its wings, trouble looms as the Winklevosses position to sue the company. Eventually the high-rolling, hard-partying Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) sets his sights on Zuckerberg, worms his way into the inner circle, and attempts to get Saverin thrown out of the company. Now, with everybody suing everybody, and billions of dollars and broken friendships hanging in the balance, the principals shuttle back and forth between multiple lawsuits.
One of the big reasons The Social Network remains enthralling from beginning to end is the spectacular work by the cast, who take full advantage of the flawless script. Eisenberg seizes the opportunity he's given, capturing and amplifying the worst aspects of Mark's personality, but all the while you never question the character's massive intelligence -- he seems like the kind of guy who would be able to create something as consequential as Facebook. He's an antihero, but we don't exactly root for or against him -- we just need to see what will happen to him. He's paired beautifully with Garfield, who makes Saverin's endless patience with the prickly -- and often pricky -- Zuckerberg not just virtuous, but sweet. Saverin is the audience stand-in, and when he gets his heart broken it's a chilling, if thoroughly expected, ending to a fascinatingly complicated friendship. Even Justin Timberlake finally lands a good part in a good film, and oozes smarmy charm so effortlessly that it's easy to see why someone as awkward as Mark would be drawn in by his high-energy BS.
Visually, this might not be the kind of film we immediately think of when throwing around the term "Fincher-esque." Outside of a rowing race shot in a tilt-shift style that makes everything look like miniatures, there are no bravura sequences -- just whisky-soaked golden-brown interiors at Harvard, and sleek, cold meeting rooms where the characters are forced to give deposition after deposition. But the film's multiple thematic interests tickle Fincher's ongoing desire to tackle big ideas, and with elements such as the modern generation gap, the battle of the sexes, loyalty, and how the desire to get laid drives all social networks, rest assured this is, as the opening credits tell us, a David Fincher film.
Nonetheless, it's also Aaron Sorkin's film. His dialogue here has a rhythm that not only allows the bon mots to hit for maximum comic effect -- you will remember many quotes from the movie -- but it also offers Eisenberg the chance to shine with a handful of monologues that are as potent and hard-hitting as the most entertaining diatribes in Paddy Chayefsky's Network.
However, the film The Social Network most brings to mind is All the President's Men. Fincher takes a true story we already know the ending to and, with sizable help from Sorkin's razor-sharp characterizations and one-liners, creates a ceaselessly entertaining and compulsively watchable portrait of what may prove to be the defining social event of a generation.