The Social Network opens with an incredibly awkward conversation between two college kids out on a date. The girl, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), is trying to convince the boy, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), to care less about status. He thinks she's trying to tell him to lower his expectations. At one point, she tells him to "be the best you can be." You can tell from her face right after she says it that she's not sure if she meant that ironically or not. Zuckerberg is even less sure: He talks in bullet-fast nervous blurts, trying to figure out what's going on. Before he can even locate solid ground, she's broken up with him. "Is this real?" he says. He honestly can't tell. And neither can the viewer; we know that Eisenberg is playing the man who, soon enough, will be the inventor and CEO of Facebook, but Aaron Sorkin's script is so tight, dazzling, and fast that we're disoriented.
It doesn't let up. Sorkin tells a story so dense in computer programming language, corporate business-speak, and legalese that it by all rights should be impenetrable. But the actors rush through the talk of Perl and leverage and depositions at the same inhuman speed as that opening scene, making it less of a language and more of a tone poem; sometimes you can't explain precisely how a character is fucked, but he is most certainly fucked. This is because the language of being fucked is universal.
And people sure do get fucked. The Social Network is based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, and it plays up the lurid history of Facebook for all it's worth. Did Zuckerberg steal the idea of Facebook from his Harvard classmates the Winklevoss twins? Did he screw over his only friend and primary investor, Eduardo Saverin? Just how fucked can people get?
The appeal of scandalous gossip about the unimaginably wealthy is not enough on its own to keep the viewer interested through the entire two-hour running time. Jeff Cronenweth's buttery cinematography, glossing over Harvard's gorgeous old buildings and wide-angle tableaux of young people drinking, dancing, and having fun, definitely helps. Trent Reznor's fizzing score is a nice touch (at first it looms like a horror-movie soundtrack, but eventually it reveals some playfulness, adding early techno and classical flourishes to liven things up).
But this is an actor's game. When David Fincher has a good script, he is unstoppable at getting great performances out of his players. Armie Hammer is stellar as the upper-crust Winklevoss twins, the kind of beautiful, wealthy, intelligent men who've been so blessed by genetics and good fortune that they seem more like demigods than humans. Hammer pulls the Winklevosses from a long cinematic line of well-bred preppy bad guys (the script cleverly nods at that heritage), and he plays against himself to evolve the characters beyond simple stereotype. Andrew Garfield provides a helpful human element as Saverin—he's got an everyman appeal (good thing he's been cast in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot; Garfield seems to have been born with Peter Parker's lovable loser mystique in his DNA) that provides the closest thing to a moral center that The Social Network has.
Jesse Eisenberg elevates his game to the stratosphere in this movie. After audiences see his Mark Zuckerberg, nobody will ever be able to consider Eisenberg the dorky leading man you call when you can't afford Michael Cera. From the first scene, he's riveting in the way he treats everything—love, success, friendship—like a computer program, a solvable problem. Eisenberg's Zuckerberg isn't quite a sociopath, he's just got a binary brain—he refutes the Winklevosses' claims of theft by saying, "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd've invented Facebook," and you can see that he believes it to be exactly that simple. He's not quite human, and he's not sure if he wants all the bother and baggage that comes with being human, either.
Thankfully, Fincher doesn't seem to have a Big Message. There's blessedly little moralizing about the internet or the internet generation. (After Zuckerberg publishes a nasty LiveJournal post, someone accuses him of "writ[ing his] snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what people do" nowadays, but that's as close to a condemnation of internet culture as you'll see.) Fincher seems content to just tell a story of greed and empire and backstabbing, and let it stand for what it is. Sure, Sorkin's script tries to give Zuckerberg a too-pat character arc (simply put: You can't do a tragedy like Citizen Kane unless you kill your Kane), but he can be forgiven for that; his script, after all, has to prematurely end a story that's still unfolding on computer screens around the world. But as a rags-to-riches story about a man who may or may not be an asshole, The Social Network takes us on one hell of a ride.