There’s a moment in this film when a character makes a crack which refers to The Karate Kid, and I lost it. The line is as throwaway as they come: it’s way too specific, and assumes a generalized state of pop culture osmosis on our part which is almost embarrassing. But it worked anyways. The ensuing laugh felt both communal and spontaneous (a combination which is one of the best reasons we still have for going to movie theaters), and right then I knew David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin had the audience right where they wanted us. The Social Network is the best movie either of them have made to date.
I’ve never quite embraced Sorkin, a Hollywood natural who tends to produce cascades of dialogue which end up organizing themselves too glibly. An actor’s natural inclination is probably to stand back and let Sorkin’s cleverness rule. But the opposite approach actually works better (think Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise indulging themselves like grand old dames in A Few Good Men). There’s no indulgence going on in Social Network, but you can tell the actors are working their tails off to come off as alive and recognizably human, and their tirelessness, by completely suppressing Sorkin’s artifice, makes a perfect marriage with the script. Fincher, as in his last film Zodiac, relies on atmospherics and pace, rather than a dynamic camera, for storytelling. Is it possible he’s calmed down for good? Regardless, the approach makes more sense here, and he can officially join the ranks of directors who don’t need to show off to make a great movie.
So, I loved it. Why, then, do I still feel a little disappointed? Network is satisfying mostly because it picks you up and carries you the whole way, and these days I find myself less willing to get on board, unless it’s a silly fantasy like Avatar. I don’t subscribe to the notion that movies are much worse now than twenty or fifty years ago, that business types have too much creative control, or that money has finally killed the art form. Money’s been killing the art form since the kinetoscope, and as far as I can see auteur theory has triumphed—these days, once a director signs on, it’s his or her baby, and child abuse goes unpunished. (Which films get made, I admit, seems to be completely controlled by non-creative types.)
My dissatisfaction stems from what Network doesn’t try to do. The basic irony—that an almost pathologically unsocial guy ends up making the world’s biggest social networking site—is so obvious that all thinking on the subject tends to stop, the moment you recognize it. It seems meaningful, but it’s hard to get any further. Sorkin probably understood this from the beginning, and the story ends up being about a pathologically unsocial person who screws a lot of people over on his way to the top, guided by either pain, pride, envy, or all three together. It deals with old-fashioned friendship and old-fashioned betrayal, and, although certainly some of the more lovely nuances of the film would have been lost, if Mark Zuckerberg had invented Amazon or Wikipedia (or possibly even a wildly successful line of lawn equipment) none of the underpinnings of Network’s structure would have collapsed.
I’m quibbling, because that structure is sturdy enough as is to support a lovely, brilliantly executed across-the-board movie. But the unexplored possibilities still nag. Take the character of Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend, played with refreshingly human punch by Rooney Mara amidst a sea of computer geeks and alpha-type males. She has very few scenes in the movie, but the ending goes back to her so dramatically that Fincher forces us to re-evaluate the whole film in the context of what’s haeppened between her and the main character. Zuckerberg’s betrayals and deceptions are firmly rooted in his humanity, but what he’s done to this girl is different. This may actually have something to do with inhumanity. The film makes gestures in that direction, but its heart is really in the people. Which is fine, except for when I have exchanges like this:
A girl asked me the other day what my favorite movie of the decade was, and I said Almost Famous. She refused to take me seriously, and then she got mad at me. I won’t apologize for loving Almost Famous. More serious-minded movies don’t often capture me anymore. And when they do it’s usually for some other reason than the thing they’re being serious-minded about.
I guess my basic complaint is this–the country has changed drastically since the turn of the century. This is a fact the movies seem to understand, but have no idea what to do about. The best film about 9-11 is the quasi-documentary United 93, which totally captivates you, but only within the bounds of the event’s actual happening. Endless attempts have been made at the Iraq war, but the results have ranged from depressingly bad to blah—liberal paranoia (Syriana and Lions for Lambs) or respectful chronicles which don’t seem to want to say anything (Hurt Locker). My favorite Islam-and-the-West-themed film of the past 10 years is probably The Kingdom, an action movie whose only question for us is how much terror-sponsorin’ Saudi Arabian ass four FBI agents are allowed to kick (the answer is as much as they want, although the filmmakers chide themselves with a breathless coda which suggests such behavior is mutually destructive and pointless. Was I being callow in taking those three closing minutes to heart?)
So I guess whenever I walk into a movie as 21st-century as Social Network, I’m quietly hoping I’ll be able to let go of Almost Famous, and move on with my film-going life. And always, even when the movie’s good or great, I end up wondering if anyone in Hollywood is ever going to help me do it.