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Friday, Jan. 7, 2011

'The Social Network'

How everything changed when the nerds got social


Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year in December and his upfront portrait photo on the cover echoed the upfront portrait photo of the "Social Network" movie poster. Though both show well-groomed guys in their 20s, there's something a bit creepy about the shots; a stark flatness highlights a lack of nuance, a curious absence of darkness. Which is pretty much how you can sum up the digital social-network world. So far, so apt.

The Social Network Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Yes, but are they really friends: A cast led by Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg portray a fictionalized version of the website's origins in "The Social Network."

Director: David Fincher
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 15, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In the movie and in the Time interview, Zuckerberg is drawn as an individual who has no truck with concepts such as sadness or failure. Is Zuckerberg so fragile that he can't stand to be burned, causing him to fashion an impenetrable protective armor to guard against the yuckiness of reality?

Maybe. Still, that would be too familiar, even banal. In the real-life interview and in the (almost) fictional film, Zuckerberg professes himself uninterested in things that don't grab at his synapses in the right way, real fast. This is the guy who launched Facebook from his Harvard University dorm room in February 2004 when he was 19, and went on from there in seven short years to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs on the globe. One in every dozen people on the entire planet now has a Facebook account and, at this point, Zuckerberg is worth more than Apple bigwig Steve Jobs. Clearly, he has no time to waste on things that don't interest him.

At first glance, the combo of Zuckerberg and filmmaker David Fincher — that maestro of dark and luxurious cynicism — seem destined for a messy breakup. The two just shouldn't gel. Okay, so Zuckerberg may be rolling in wealth and privilege, but he gives the impression that money's not all that important to him. And a love of money is the sort of vulnerable soft spot Fincher loves to probe.

Nor does Zuckerberg care about impressing people: His fashion- challenged lifestyle and disregard for social graces are infamous. Again, Fincher loves to draw the opposite type of radically stylish extrovert, not some geek in a hoodie. Judging from Fincher's past resume, Zuckerberg could be the character who gets kicked in the face by a mafia type after ordering a macchiato while chatting with an online blind date in a suburban Starbucks.

But in "The Social Network," Fincher goes out on a limb to understand and dissect Zuckerberg. In doing so, he unwittingly reveals aspects of his own self in relation to social networks and the Internet that are just as compelling as, or even more so than, his interpretation of Zuckerberg.

The brilliance of "The Social Network" lies in the brilliance of Fincher and how he takes his scalpel to Zuckerberg, but playing like the faintest of static in the background is a whole other show: David Fincher, Exposed. When you consider the fact that Fincher has the reputation of being an intensely private filmmaker who abhors interviews while Zuckerberg has never made a secret of anything in his life, the irony becomes complete.

"The Social Network" oozes the kind of romanticism at which Fincher excels: the subdued, suggestive lighting; a mysterious, tantalizing elusiveness that surround people and objects; a texture that recalls expensive dark chocolate. The weird thing is this: Zuckerberg (whose very name shuns romanticism) and his creation, Facebook, are both dedicated to ridding the world of all that nonsense.

Facebook is about openness and more openness: Its function is to spread, link up and share everything and everyone. Fincher — who is in his mid-40s and remembers a time when people met in person to talk to one another and had maybe 15 friends at a time — is perhaps suffering from a case of agoraphobia. Literally out of his depth, Fincher refashions Zuckerberg's persona (played with an eerie calm by Jesse Eisenberg) into someone with less charm and more psychological baggage, someone who had to go online to find a few friends who'd give him the time of day. A rude dumping by his girlfriend triggers a need to "get back at her" by inventing a Harvard-based social network; initially, it was just supposed to get sorry guys like Mark into the dating scene with minimum effort.

In real life, Zuckerberg already had a girlfriend and plenty of friends when he sat down in front of his laptop to create his Facebook empire. Seven years later, Zuckerberg lives with that girlfriend in Palo Alto and the Facebook headquarters is staffed by his best friends. Fincher's Mark sports a few chips on his shoulder that the real Zuckerberg probably never has and, even if he had, he'd have likely forgotten about them. He's just not interested.

An interview with "The Social Network" director David Fincher and actor Justin Timberlake (who plays Napster founder Sean Parker) will appear in Jan. 14's Japan Times.

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