To be honest, that earnestly self-delighted trailer, with the heated-drama highlight reel and the choir singing Radiohead’s “Creep,” might have been all we needed. But with Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker, a script by Aaron Sorkin (from Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires”) and director David Fincher knowing he owes us one after “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” this online-culture origin myth will be glad to perpetuate itself.
Is it too soon? Probably, but life and all its weird facsimiles come at us so quickly nowadays, which is partly why you know you want to see “The Social Network” anyway: to process. On principle alone, the experience of the so-called Facebook movie is as recommendable as is that of the site itself: Given such strenuous ubiquity, you might as well just see what it’s all about. Besides, if there’s any great subject that cinema, with its paradoxical mass intimacy, should be able to handle, it’s the freakish technological acceleration of social interaction and concomitant dissolution of human relationships.
And who is responsible for that? All of us, yes, but who started it, and under what circumstances? “The Social Network” supplies Zuckerberg as an awkwardly tufthunting Harvard sophomore, deservedly jilted by his chagrined safety-school girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and driven to harness the Internet for a petty but brilliant public despairing of social impotence. Human nature and elite-university entitlement being what they are, this prompts a palpable phenomenon; soon enough comes monetization — and litigation. The guarded genius Zuckerberg, paragon of poker-faced contempt for all the strivers surrounding him, necessarily runs afoul of several classmates (well played by Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer and Max Minghella), then practically runs away with Parker, the knavish Mephisto to his nerdy Faust. Friends requested, enemies made.
There’s a mesmerizing satisfaction to be had from recognizing the appropriateness of this material for its makers. Rightfully, “The Social Network” will supplant “The West Wing” as the apotheosis of Sorkin’s smug, windy style. As usual he indicates “smartness” as never being at a loss for words, and having ideas at the ready more rapidly than natural conversation can accommodate them. That’s also a way to code for distancing arrogance, as Eisenberg very shrewdly understands. Limiting his range of expression to the narrowest possible spectrum of visible emotion, he parses the Sorkin-speak with alarming, abetting fluency.
The priority here is not flattery but something closer to its opposite, and maybe also a deliberately patronizing mode of pity. It works best when attuned to the characteristic Fincher chill (even if occasional snowflakes and visible winter breath look distractingly fake). The rest seems like reflexive trumping up: Quick, toss me the Harvard student handbook, for I believe there’s a point in our code of conduct by which to ensnare the bastard! Quick, get out of that shower you just stepped into and debrief me on this captivating and heretofore unfamiliar website! These already false notes sound even falser when played by a director historically more convincing as a technician than a humanist. As for a broader comment on the current American character, “The Social Network” does at least display a more Fitzgeraldian consciousness of class than Fincher managed in “Benjamin Button,” which actually originated in Fitzgerald. Ah, but if these bright young things today don’t read old books anymore anyway, who cares?
For all its real enough ideas — about young people making jobs instead of taking them, about the end of the old privacy and the beginning of a new obscurity — “The Social Network” falls short of full articulation. You sense a stymied older generation passive-aggressively handing off the baton of cultural canniness to a savvy younger one — by piping up as a gloating litanist of callow missteps. The narrative spine of this film, after all, is a series of depositions. Sorkin and Fincher neither rue nor celebrate the Facebookers’ achievement, but simply graft it onto the shopworn archetypal framework of an ambition-driven morality tale. This is not a brave new world but a craven one, explained away as reassuringly as possible with a same old story.