‘The Social Network’ wins friends among film critics


The Japanese tagline for “The Social Network” translates as “Genius, backstabber, dangerous guy, billionaire.” Probably not the kind of sentiment a website trying to connect friends wants to be associated with. However, for a film — it’s damn sexy.

“The Social Network” is about the genesis of social networking site Facebook via its creator Mark Zuckerberg (though it takes the usual Hollywood liberties). It has, thus far, impressed critics and inspired myriad essays and Op-Ed pieces by writers trying to understand the motives of so-called Generation 2.0 and Zuckerberg in particular.

“The film works on several levels,” director David Fincher says. “If you’ve never heard of Facebook, you can still follow and presumably become involved in the story.”

Based on the best-selling book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook — A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” by Ben Mezrich, “The Social Network” has even been compared by some Western critics to cinematic classic “Citizen Kane” (based mostly on the life of U.S. media mogul William Randolph Hearst and the empire he created).

Fincher tapped a relatively unknown cast for the film, including Jesse Eisenberg for the Zuckerberg role.

“Part of the book’s subtitle is that it’s a story about betrayal,” Eisenberg says. “The guy did get, in a sense, betrayed by his girlfriend. Actually, he was just dumped by her. You, the movie audience, get to decide if she was right, and I think most people would agree she was. But some guys, like ones with not the best social skills, might think she’s unfeeling and that she should have given him another chance. If she had, maybe Facebook wouldn’t be part of today’s social history.”

Eisenberg’s costar, Justin Timberlake, might be the best-known actor among the cast. With a few films under his belt, he has a lifetime of experience in the music industry behind him. He was a child star on the Disney Channel, frontman for boy band ‘NSync in the 1990s and had a very successful career as a solo artist in the ’00s. But Timberlake now believes his future lies more in acting than in singing. With his fame, it’s surprising that he wasn’t cast in the lead role.

“I’m too old, really,” Timberlake chuckles. He turns 30 on Jan. 31. “And I don’t know that I’m the right type for that part, either physically or . . . it’s a challenging part. Jesse does a fantastic job, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination. If he does, and wins the award, I’ll be glad for him.”

Eisenberg has received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance and the film has received nods for Best Picture, Best Director and more (the Golden Globes, awarded in Beverly Hills, California, on Jan. 16, are seen as harbingers for Oscar nominations, which will be announced Jan. 25). Incidentally, Timberlake isn’t lacking in the prize department. He has already won plenty of awards including two Grammys and two Emmys.

Timberlake plays Sean Parker, who founded music file-sharing service Napster and whose involvement with Zuckerberg helps take Facebook global. Fincher says Timberlake is definitely maturing as an actor.

“He may have more to give in the musical sphere, but I think he definitely has a lot more to present on the big screen.”

In the film, Parker tells Zuckerberg that he founded Napster to impress a girl when he was a hacker in high school. Zuckerberg, however, isn’t motivated by sex. Or money. Or even by revenge on the girl who dumped him. Facebook to him, Timberlake says, “is a final, ultimate club that he controls and he’s the leading member of. There’s another layer to his character. He wants to be cool.”

“Zuckerberg got into Harvard,” says Fincher. “That’s an accomplishment to most anybody. But in life, there’s always yet another goal, another level. Within the elite ‘club’ that is Harvard are smaller, more elite clubs. Whether Zuckerberg would have wanted in to them as desperately or fiercely if his girlfriend hadn’t kissed him off is a central question.”

Indeed, as the film is being compared to “Citizen Kane,” Zuckerberg’s dismissal by girlfriend Erica Albright (played by Rooney Mara) has been called the “Rosebud” moment of “The Social Network.” In the same way that Rosebud was the emotional starting point of Charles Foster Kane’s march toward prominence, Erica is the spark that sets Zuckerberg into motion — and haunts him. (It is important to note that the character of Erica is fictional, but rumors abound on the Web as to who she is based on.)

Much of Mezrich’s novel, which was adapted for film by Aaron Sorkin (“Charlie Wilson’s War”), is actually based on the story of Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield). He called himself Zuckerberg’s only friend and helped him launch Facebook, but sued Zuckerberg for decreasing his share in the venture in the end. (There is talk of sequel to “The Social Network,” which would detail the ongoing dramas and excesses of Zuckerberg’s life, business relationships and the controversial company he founded.)

“The irony,” says Fincher, “is that Zuckerberg founded Facebook, which is for many people a form of community. Many find there a sense of community or family lacking in their home and work environments. Yet — as you see him in the film — Zuckerberg is not a friendly individual, nor one who wants to share.”

Indeed, the Zuckerberg character is easy to dislike, and many could dismiss him as a boor.

“He doesn’t have what it takes for a friendship, which is give-and-take,” Timberlake adds. “Aaron came up with these great lines. I get to say a lot of them. It’s like I’m the catalyst for what happens with Zuckerberg, what he does. Sean Parker tempts and cajoles Mark into going the same route he did, only with bigger consequences and success, as we know from Facebook.”

At one point, Timberlake’s Parker counsels Zuckerberg by telling him that “private life is a relic of a bygone time. . . . Now we’re going to live on the Internet.” An interesting thought considering where Facebook is nowadays. Parker is also credited, if credit be the word, with the idea for Zuckerberg’s infamous business card: “I’m CEO . . . bitch.”

Numerous critics have noted the characters’ misogyny. After Zuckerberg is dumped by Erica for being more into himself than into the relationship, he retreats to his dorm room and proceeds to insult her on his blog, then goes on to insult her gender by creating a website that rates, and invites other men to rate, female Harvard students in terms of sexiness.

“Yeah, it’s pretty antifemale,” admits Timberlake. “Those guys are young and real immature . . . when they get hurt by a girl, they lash out and they try to hurt back — all girls, if they can.”

Fincher also notes the perceived misogyny.

“The consciousness of girls and women of all ages has been raised throughout nearly all the world in recent decades,” he says. “Not necessarily the consciousness or sensitivity of the young, ambitious but often insecure college man . . . or boy, one might say.”

“Again, on one level, the film is about relationships. Thwarted, but then a new sort of relationship. For a time, the Zuckerberg character finds a substitute relationship with the males he admires or wants to be.”

Cleverly, Fincher has surrounded Eisenberg with Timberlake and other actors who are more physically impressive and emotionally expressive. This results in a protagonist who seems immature and almost one-dimensional.

“You can look at “The Social Network” as being about a childlike guy who gets back at everybody and wins in the end, in a way,” Timberlake says. “That’s a pretty universal theme. And so’s the fact that when he wins, he’s still not necessarily happy, and has a new set of problems.”

Though Facebook lags in popularity behind social networking sites such as Gree and Mixi in Japan, Fincher thinks the film’s themes will appeal to audiences here and in other countries.

“As I understand it,” Fincher says, “Japan has its own system of very prestigious universities and social clubs to which the most ambitious men, or people, aspire. So, I think this film is relevant to Japan, which is as computer-savvy and technology-oriented as anywhere — more so than to most.”

Timberlake concludes, “Facebook is big everywhere . . . I think in Japan there’s still a lot of curiosity about it, though. Now, whether after seeing the movie, people there — or anywhere — will be as much wanting to get into the world of Facebook as before seeing the movie, I don’t know.

“But when a guy isn’t that macho and he gets thrown over by a girl, chances are he’ll usually accept it and move on. However, if he has a burning desire for acceptance . . . he might do what Zuckerberg did.

“I think the movie’s kind of like a cautionary tale. It’s saying: Don’t let your emotions or reactions run away with you.”

“The Social Network” opens in theaters on Jan. 15.