"The Social Network” doesn't beat us over our heads with the inherent joke in its title, but it's undeniable. According to the film, the world's biggest social networking site was created by one of the most unsocial people ever depicted in a work of fiction.
As portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg and framed by the film, Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire founder and chief executive of Facebook, places somewhere right after Ebenezer Scrooge, pre-Christmas spirits. An ambitious cross between biopic, courtroom drama and what you might call a techno-business thriller, the movie offers a portrait of Zuckerberg against the backdrop of the legal battle over Facebook's intellectual origins, its whirlwind development into a multibillion-dollar business and what it means to be a young Internet tycoon. It's a lot of material, and it's up to individual viewers whether they find it all equally engaging. As you might have learned from spending too much time perusing the Facebook news feed, however, information can be a mixed bag.
The movie is at its best when concentrating on Zuckerberg, a Harvard undergrad and coding genius whose tale resembles the origin story of a comic-book superhero, or villain, if you prefer. He's a nerd, has trouble with girls and boisterous, privileged men, and vows revenge using his superpowers, which are mighty in the age of hacking. The revenge part might be a stretch, but the movie gives its anti-hero a massive bit of motivation: He gets dumped, by Rooney Mara. She interrupts one of Zuckerberg's egotistical rants at a pub in order to tell him: “You're going to go through life thinking girls don't like you because you're a nerd. But … it's because you're an asshole.” At this point the movie develops two concurrent themes while Zuckerberg literally runs back to his dorm to exact revenge on his blog: Zuckerberg is a nerd, an impressive genius with confidence to boot; he's also a big-time asshole.
Zuckerberg follows his blog revenge by creating, with help from his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a campus version of HotorNot.com that melts the school's servers. The feat lands Zuckerberg on academic probation, but also garners the attention of the Winklevosses, twin towers of Harvard rowing brawn (both played by Armie Hammer) who have an idea to create an Ivy League-exclusive version of MySpace. Zuckerberg agrees to provide the coding, goes back to his dorm and proceeds to ignore the Winklevosses while creating TheFacebook.com. It takes off, the Winklevosses eventually sue, and the movie changes coasts, losing Zuckerberg a little in the bigger story of high-stakes Internet innovation and backstabbing.
Deftly written by Aaron Sorkin (creator of “The West Wing”), the script gradually transforms into an ingenious example of nonlinear storytelling, jumping between lawyer-filled scenes in the present and dramatizations of its characters' testimony, a device that reminds us that while what we're watching ultimately is fiction, it has an element of reality. (The movie was based on “The Accidental Billionaires,” by Ben Mezrich with consultation by Zuckerberg's ex-best friend, Saverin).
Director David Fincher (“Fight Club”) gives the proceedings a more than serviceable treatment, following up his recent police procedural, “Zodiac,” with another sturdy examination of men who operate on obsessions. But there are also drugs, women, nightclubs and fancy office spaces to ogle, creating a little confusion as to whether we're supposed to be impressed or repulsed by Zuckerberg and his nascent empire. His cheekiness is sometimes shocking, but sometimes it's funny. Then again, it's difficult to find any 20-year-olds who aren't smugly self-righteous, even if they work at Taco Bell. It's tempting to view Zuckerberg as simply many times smarter and wealthier.
In the end, the movie, as much as Zuckerberg, feels a little full of itself, requiring conventional devices to moralize and recap what we've already learned. Small complaints, perhaps, for such a juicy, timely melodrama, but one can imagine Zuckerberg snorting at the way the movie fails to find larger connections in the success of his invention — the simple News Feed was the revolution, not exclusivity — and for good reason. If the movie has Zuckerberg dead to rights, he can be a real jerk. But so what? In laying bare the creator of Facebook, Fincher and Sorkin have forgotten to take a look at Facebook, what it means to exist independently of Zuckerberg. “The Social Network” comes back with trophies from its big-game hunt, just ones a little smaller than intended. (R) 120 min.