Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Marlin, the Trout

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I've decided to break into the very early goings of this year's edition of The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! in order to discuss this movie about some website that I've heard some people have left the theater claiming they enjoyed. And this is the thing about David Fincher's The Social Network -- everybody loves it. Or nearly everybody, and so far, but still, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive up to this point. I can only imagine that Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are sitting in their respective homes, patiently awaiting the crashing waves of backlash that are unquestionably set to sweep them away.
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Well, I'm not going to be a part of those waves, despite the fact that I'm a minuscule part of the internet that Sorkin doesn't seem to like very much. Which is fine, because I don't happen to like Sorkin very much, and in fact initially resisted The Social Network not because, as many others seem to be doing, it's a movie about Facebook (follow me on Facebook's Networked Blogs, won't you?), but because of Sorkin's involvement. I'm simply not a fan, and I've given the man a fair shake, having seen several episodes each of his major TV shows, and a number of films he's written. His rapid-fire, "Hey lookit me, I'm Ben Hecht!" brand of wiseass banter that makes us laugh as we cry has not only always seemed to me to be too clever by half, but also led me to an understanding of what "too clever by half" actually means, which is this: the cleverness is presumed by the writer to be inherent in the words being spoken, but fails to manifest as such in the ears of the listener. Something like that anyway.
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Saying now that I believe The Social Network is the finest work of Sorkin's career probably sounds hopelessly faint, but I truly do believe the man has written a hell of a good movie here, and I'll return to Sorkin in a minute. First, though, I'll remind you that The Social Network is a film about Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), an arrogant, brilliant computer programmer who, while at Harvard, is pegged by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, in an extraordinary feat of "twin acting", which, on the levels of both performance and camera trickery, is all the more brilliantly effective for being so casual) as just the guy to help them launch their intra-Harvard social networking website. Zuckerberg accepts, and then becomes, as far as the Winklevosses (or "Winklevi", as Zuckerberg refers to them at one point), a hermit, only to suddenly become the big man on campus because he, along with best friend Eduardo Saverin (Alex Garfield), is the genius behind another website called "The Facebook", which at the level of idea is very similar to the Winklevosses site. As The Social Network is primarily about the legal turmoil that followed the inception of Facebook, and even more about the shocking levels of condescending egomania that can exist in the mind and soul of a single man, it's Zuckerberg's indifferent (on his part) break with the Winklevosses that the ball gets rolling on a film that is pretty relentless as a piece of storytelling, and as a piece of entertainment.
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Because The Social Network is so packed full of words, the film feels like it belongs more to Aaron Sorkin and that excellent cast of actors than it does to director David Fincher, whose attachment pre-release was the soothing balm many people felt they needed to get past the fact that this was a movie about Facebook. But Fincher's craftsmanship is most gratefully noted by me, because this goddamn movie about Facebook absolutely zips along. Meanwhile, on a purely visual level, The Social Network is both beautiful and amusing to look upon. "Amusing" because Fincher's pallette might best be described as "dim" -- watching The Social Network, you might think that the Harvard University campus was in a state of perpetual power outage. In a more forgiving state of mind, one might think that, with all the candles and natural light, Fincher was taking a pretty major cue from Kubrick and Barry Lyndon, though with perhaps a less logical basis for his lighting choices. Either way, the movie looks great, even inviting; I wasn't blessed enough to attend Harvard, but if I knew, or thought, that it constantly looked so rich and dusty and medieval, I probably would have studied harder in high school. Plus, apparently if you give girls Ecstasy they'll kiss each other.
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I've mentioned before that the cast is excellent, and it is. Prior to this, I've been lukewarm on Jesse Eisenberg, and it's very possible I still am. If the idea behind Adam Sandler's magnificent performance in Punch-Drunk Love was that the character he'd been playing in films like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore suddenly found himself transformed into an actual human being, then Eisenberg's work as Mark Zuckerberg is the sinister twin of the awkward, twitchy fellows he's been playing, with some wearying overlap, in Adventureland and Zombieland. But all that means is that Eisenberg is, at the very worst, perfectly cast as Zuckerberg. At best, he's as good an actor as everybody has been insisting he always was. Eisenberg is helped considerably by two things, the first and most obvious being that Aaron Sorkin has given him some truly plum moments of stratospherically egomaniacal condescension to play throughout. These moments remind me of what I used to consider Sorkin's best piece of writing, the "I am God" speech from Malice, and they can pop up anywhere, but they most memorably occur in the scenes when Eisenberg is being deposed for one or another of the various lawsuits in which he's become embroiled (these deposition scenes also form the film's spine, everything else spinning off from them in flashback). My favorite is when Zuckerberg, in full-bore sneering wiseass mode, checks the very simple math of the attorney for his former best friend, Eduardo.
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Who, by the way, got screwed by Zuckerberg, and is suing him. Because Zuckerberg is an asshole who knows just about everything, except what being an asshole is one day going to cost him. The Zuckerberg of the film was always headed this way, but he's helped along by former Naptser mastermind Sean Parker, played here by Justin Timberlake in, I must say, a very finely tuned performance. The way Timberlake takes Parker from charismatic whizkid to someone you want to punch straight in the mouth is really deft, and might remind the viewer of similar, real-life experiences, in which a friend or friendly acquaintance gradually revealed themselves to not be quite the fun, pleasant guy you thought, but rather someone with a heart full of serpents; and it might remind you of your own reaction, which was one of anger and disappointment, but, surprisingly, not quite surprise.
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Since The Social Network really is Sorkin's film, it's fitting that if anyone gets in the film's way, it's him. Sorkin's style that I've so disliked in the past annoyed me only three or four times in the course of the movie, which is about nineteen or twenty fewer than I'd expected, but which are still damaging. The whole chicken cruelty subplot, which is actually a crucial hinge in the Zuckerberg/Saverin friendship, comes off as so desperately writerly, no matter how closely it might mirror the reality (I have no idea, for the record), that it set my anti-Sorkin sensors flaring. Worse are the various conversational digressions (if you've seen the film, take the "3,000 pound marlin" bit as an example), meant to capture, I suppose, natural human speech and distracted thought processes, but from Sorkin are a bit proud, and unfunny (the latter being especially noticable in a film that is often very funny).
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Then there's the neatness of it all. To hear Sorkin tell it, Zuckerberg's monstrous ambition is fueled, including the monstrous part, by the girl (Rooney Mara) who dumped him. I have no problem with the idea that this moment, which is The Social Network's opening, had a profound impact on him, but I could have done without the later scene, when Zuckerberg sees her again, their meeting goes poorly for him, and he immediately decides to expand Facebook yet again. The Social Network doesn't exhaust itself trying to pin Zuckerberg down, for which I'm thankful, but when it veers that way -- out of obligation, I feel -- it's pretty simplistic. As is the film's final line, which if it wasn't the last line I'd quote in full. Suffice it to say, it's the kind of line that sounds good, but which leads me to wish the screenwriter were in the room so I could ask him "And what exactly does that mean?" Coming at the very end as it does, is a bit unfortunate.
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So the movie's merely excellent. It is not, I don't think, transcendent, which is about the level at which a lot the praise so far is being pitched. And initially, after seeing the film, I thought I might have to do something about that. You know, to stand up for injustice and everything, and begin a campaign to chip away at the Tower of the Overpraisers (as I'd begun to think of them, and it, the instant the end credits started to roll). But then I thought, well, maybe it's enough that The Social Network is really, really good. Maybe that's not a good enough reason for a pacifist such as myself to launch an assault. Then I thought that sometimes this whole deal where people compare and argue over their individual reactions to a given film can sometimes, if you're not careful, get a little bit silly.
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17 comments:

Jordan Ruimy said...

damn, I need to watch this movie. Fincher has turned into one of my favourite directors, Zodiac just catapulted him to the top.

Tony Dayoub said...

Lump me in with the overpraisers, Bill, but I think Sorkin's script is ingenious. And with the exception of TSN, I've hated much of his work. I love how he utilizes the flashback structure to create a RASHOMON effect, so that even if it doesn't feel honest that "...Zuckerberg sees her again, their meeting goes poorly for him, and he immediately decides to expand Facebook yet again..."—or the chicken scene and "conversational digressions" ring untrue—one could justify it as the kind of recollection attributable to an unreliable narrator.

This is important because it is analogous to one of the points made in the film (and of which Facebook users are all too aware), that the site is typically used by many to put a nice self-promoting sheen on their often drab lives.

bill r. said...

Jordan - I'm not the world's biggest Fincher fan, but I would marry ZODIAC if I could. I wouldn't put THE SOCIAL NETWORK at that level, but it's excellent, and easily my second favorite of Fincher's work.

All well and good, Tony, but you did get that I REALLY liked the film, right? If I think you're overpraising it, or that your justifications for the bits I didn't care for are a stretch, I'm not going to try to make you see the light, because it's a REALLY good movie anyway. Degrees become a silly distraction, or an excuse to argue, at this point.

However, am I wrong, or did you just call my life bland!?

Tony Dayoub said...

No argument from me, Bill. I'm mostly arguing with other naysayers out there who may be reading. I've heard such flaws as the one you point out used to unravel the whole film (as well as an argument that the film didn't touch one critic on an emotional level... which Richard Brody was kind enough to tell said critic was sort of the point of the film). I'm not surprised that you are able to see past these nitpicks where other critics can't seem to do the same. I just think it's ingenious that Sorkin left himself a writerly escape hatch in the event such things (and any factual discrepancies inherent in an unauthorized "true" story) came up. Wish I'd think of something like that for my own scripts.

And no, I didn't call YOUR life bland, but there are those FB friends out there...

bill r. said...

Are you talking about Armond White, by any chance? I haven't read his review, and don't know what he believed unraveled the whole film, but his is the one major negative reaction I know about. And who saw THAT coming, right???

But there's a backlash coming, no question. It will probably be mild and irrelevant, such as the one that eventually met up with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, or it might be huge. I don't know, but it's on the way.

And no, I didn't call YOUR life bland, but there are those FB friends out there...

Oh, them. Yeah, those guys are losers.

Tony Dayoub said...

Nah, don't even get me started on Armond White... a) I don't even read the guy's reviews anymore, just his irrational attacks on bloggers, and b) I had the pleasure of attending several screenings with him this week, and well, let's not go there...

bill r. said...

Was he super nice? Did you tell him about me? Does he like my blog? He likes blogs, right?

Craig said...

In Sorkin's case, I think "too clever by half" also means that rather than flatter the audience for being smart, he flatters the audience for being as smart as he is. A fine distinction, but in addition to a couple of examples you mentioned, the line about Cole Porter love songs made me wince.

As with you, though, it was one of only a few instances, and I suspect Fincher had a lot to do with keeping the best parts of the script intact and excising most of the bad stuff. (Wanna bet how many Bush jokes were in the original script?) I've been something of a Fincher agnostic as well. But as others have mentioned, he and Sorkin produced a fruitful tension here, with dialogue and visuals seeming to be at cross-purposes yet somehow attaining equilibrium. Sorkin's zingers cut deeper, it turns out, when the characters are sitting opposite of each other rather than running down corridors. And that rowing sequence, which must have been minimal on the page ("Winkelvoss twins -- they row"), becomes a classic piece of cinema.

bill r. said...

Craig - Yes, that Cole Porter line was prime bad Sorkin. Meanwhile, he's also able to write a scene like the one where the Winkelvosses meet with the president of Harvard. There are a couple of overly clever lines there as well, but they're excused because they're funny, and the scene as a whole is a pretty great piece of writing. And it could have been cut, too (for pacing or whatever), so I'm glad they didn't do that.

Josh said...

Bill, I feel similarly.

I normally can't stand Sorkin, partly because everyone talks the same snarky, rapid-fire way, regardless of who they are. TSN had that, but I thought it was funny, clever, and the cast and Fincher did such a fine job that I didn't mind so much.

But I didn't think it was transcendent, either. I just don't think there's that much to it beyond well-executed cleverness.

And what was with that suddenly crazy Asian girlfriend? Are women just like that?

But I don't really want to bicker with those who loved it, either. As with Inception, I understand that feeling; I just don't share it.

Greg said...

First of all, nice way to interrupt October, jerkwad.

Second of all, I believe Tony was shunned by Armond at those screenings which is why he has decided to start up his own social network, BlogBook. I'm already a member and have two friends (Tony and me - you can friend yourself on BlogBook! It's awesome!).

Third, this review was too clever by half.

Fourth, I actually want to see this now. Once again, Bill, I'm powerless in the face of your recommendations.

bill r. said...

Ah ha ha! I CONTROL YOU!!!

And I feel my review was only too clever by one fifth, which is an acceptable margin.

Thirdsly, please follow me on BlogBook. I recommend you become a fan of Bill Ryan.

KEVYN KNOX said...

I have always believed one should write (no matter what they may be writing about) as if everyone reading (or hearing) your words know as much as you do. Of course no two people know the exact same things, but no matter, one should write as if we are all smart and witty and all that kind of jazz.

I believe that is how Sorkin writes. I know that is how I write (not to the level of Sorkin, but in that cocksure kind of way). This style has always drawn me to Sorkin's work (Studio 60 is one of the most underrated TV shows ever) and it drew me in on The Social Network (I think they should have dropped the The).

The banter about the marlin plays out as very true. I can see myself and certain friends speaking that way. Perhaps we are just freaks (probably a better bet than perhaps, but hey...).

Anyway, I just want to go on whatever record there may well be as a dyed-in-the-wool Sorkin fan. And that being so, one who is one of those overpraisers you speak of.

A film about not just Facebook, nor about just privacy issues, but a film about power, prestige and the thin ice of supposed friendships. Fincher's camera does wonders here (as it usually does) but it is Sorkin's writing that takes this film into the proverbial stratosphere of overpraising.

Not to argue yr Sorkin points (everyone has different tastes) nor your take on the film as a whole (you are a very intelligent writer who definitely knows his stuff) - just wanted to throw in my own 7 cents or so.

bill r. said...

Kevyn - That's all cool (man). I know a lot of people love Sorkin the way I love David Mamet, and that's fine. But listen: you DID get that I REALLY liked this movie, right? Historically, I'm not a fan of Sorkin at all, but I thought his work here was pretty excellent. I had some quibbles that I wanted to bring up, but I hope no ones reads this post and comes away thinking I didn't like the film.

As for the marlin bit -- I can imagine that conversation happening in real life. But NOT in that context. That's my problem. Sorkin gets too clever and full of his own words that I don't believe I'm watching people speaking anymore. If he'd had those characters have that discussion during a looser situation, then fine. But not there.

BUT STILL!! I REALLY LIKED THE MOVIE A WHOLE BUNCH!

KEVYN KNOX said...

Bill,

Yes, I got that you really liked the film. I was just giving a helping hand to Sorkin as it were.

And yes, I also get what you mean by the context of such a discussion and all that.

Mainly I was just trying to toss in my ideas of the screenplay.

Take care. Great piece on the movie btw.

bill r. said...

I know, Kevyn -- sorry if I came off belligerent before. That wasn't my intention.

Adam Zanzie said...

Bill, just for the sake of accuracy, the "chicken" subplot was taken directly from Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires. Though you do mention in this piece that you're not sure if this subplot was true to reality (and I'm not sure, either--I'm too lazy to look it up anyway), it should be noted that if the subplot is fiction, it originated from Mezrich's imagination. Sorkin's entire screenplay mostly shoots the book.

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