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The Social Network is engaging, entertaining, and highly quotable. Likeable as it is, there’s plenty meh to go with spurts of OMG.

It Happened One Night

The Devil in geek's clothing
The Devil in geek’s clothing

The Social Network is all about the creation of Facebook, the social Web site that, within six lightning-fast years, has redefined self-absorption in the guise of social connectivity.

As legend has it, cocky genius – and social outcast – Mark Zuckerberg created Facemash, the immature progenitor for Facebook, during the course of one eventful night in which Erica, his surrogate girlfriend, broke up with him, he got drunk, blogged nasty comments about the girl, then played around by siphoning student data and portraits from databases throughout Harvard and concocting a sexist little game in which players select which of two girls is hotter. Clearly Zuckerberg’s disdain for privacy had its genesis in that dorm room.

Within hours, Facemash attracted 22,000 pageviews and Harvard’s network crashed.

There certainly is a significant story to be told when one person can take an idea and make it grow from a dorm room to a gigantic enterprise valued at $25 billion within six years. And Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire.

But the reality is one person didn’t do that. The bulk of The Social Network agilely tells its story by dancing between Harvard, Los Angeles, and two conference rooms in which two different gaggles of lawyers confront Mark regarding two separate lawsuits brought by two independent parties alleging Mark stole the idea and the money that made Facebook thrive.

Thirsty Scholar Pub

The Social Network feels a lot like director David Fincher’s Zodiac. Both are technically well made, though sporting more subdued imagery than the zap-bang-pow cinematography of Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both recreate a specific cultural happening in American history. But both feel a tad detached and come up short in terms of personal resonance.

While Zodiac had the benefit of Jake Gyllenhaal’s amiable take on Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist turned investigative reporter, The Social Network is stuck with a guy who is not the least bit sympathetic, even with Mark’s perfect SAT score.

As portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland), Zuckerberg is an arrogant smartass, but one who oddly comes across like Harvey Keitel doing some sort of caricature of Michael Cera. He’s the devil in geek’s clothing.

The collateral damage in Mark’s quest to create “The Facebook” include the site’s money man, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, set to be the next Spider-Man), and the Winklevoss twins, two athletes who approach Mark with the idea of building a site exclusively for Harvard students, one that would put the entire social experience of Harvard online. They’re the two parties who wind up hauling Mark into court.

The Wall

Documenting this cultural phenomenon is absolutely fair game. Tales of overwhelming success, particularly those with humble, unlikely starts are always inspiring to some degree or another. Certainly any geeky programmer can relate to Zuckerberg’s all nighters and random sources of inspiration, his ability to go go go without stopping for a bite to eat. Throw in a Bill Gates cameo and lots of references to things like PHP, Mozilla, and other techy innards and the movie is a nerdgasm waiting to happen.

That’s where The Social Network works best: in showing the madness and randomness that went into creating a worldwide force on the Worldwide Web. As one attorney notes, they don’t have roads in Bosnia, but they do have Facebook.

But The Social Network has its shortcomings. While the story is well told, it’s not all that much of a story, certainly not one that hasn’t already been lived out in the media – quite recently. There’s nothing particularly new or insightful here.

And then there’s Justin Timberlake. He has the potential to be a decent actor and there’s plenty of irony to be had in the pop star’s portrayal of Sean Parker, the creator of the music-sharing site Napster. Timberlake’s got the hair down pat, but he’s simply not credible in the role.

I’m the CEO, Bitch

It’s certainly questionable how accurate this telling is (it’s based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Princeton-born Ben Mezrich). But it’s also interesting to look up Facemash and find this November 2003 gem of an article on The Harvard Crimson’s Web site.

How fitting Erica (allegedly) pointed out to Mark writing on the Internet is like writing with ink, not pencil. Events stay alive on the Web long after they’re said and done.

In some respects, the Web’s social networks seem to be counterproductive by disconnecting people from reality, from sensitivity, from remembering social graces are still of value in the world. And for that Zuckerberg is the perfect poster child. When Facebook goes down (and, contrary to Mark’s claims in the movie, it does go down), the site’s biggest addicts get depressed. And for them this movie is the perfect emergency placebo.

It’s hardly coincidental Zuckerberg made an image-repairing move by donating $100 million to the Newark, N.J., school system only a week before this movie’s opening. The guy has a reputation that precedes and transcends The Social Network. Facebook has come under scrutiny numerous times now in regard to its devious privacy practices as it changes data usage and privacy considerations behind users’ backs.

Zuckerberg could’ve made the donation a long time ago. But, much more importantly, if he really wanted to keep it quiet, he shouldn’t have go on Oprah and talked about it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.