The Social Network

As the boy wonder who invented Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is, at age 26, the world’s youngest-ever billionaire. He is also, at least according to the film “The Social Network,” an exposed nerve of insecurities and resentments —” a bona fide genius whose brilliance is matched only by his cruelty.

To put it in Facebook terms, it is unlikely Mark Zuckerberg plans to “friend” this picture anytime soon.

Opening Friday, “The Social Network” is a breathtaking wallop of a film, a dense and engrossing tale supposedly about the world of the moment, but one powered by themes that are timeless. You hardly need be a Facebook addict to appreciate the lacerating wit and insights of this collaboration between two singular talents in American cinema: director David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“Charlie Wilson’s War”).

The movie also happens to be unequivocally American in tone and subject, a rave of irony propelled by a collective mindset that reveres individualism, but craves acceptance; praises innovation, yet demands profit.

The core irony, of course, is that a social phenomenon ostensibly celebrating friends and communication would be the invention of, well, a nearly friendless misanthrope. In many ways, “The Social Network” is an updating of the themes and narrative of “Citizen Kane,” another esteemed yarn about a uniquely American antihero.

Based on Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires,” the film unfolds at Harvard in 2003. Mark (Jesse Eisenberg, “Zombieland”) and his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), are having dinner in a noisy bar; it’s clear this is no match made in Ivy League heaven.

Mark, prickly and socially awkward, is obsessed with breaking into one of the university’s all-male social clubs. Erica can barely get a word in amid his rapid-fire talk and a moodiness that swings from arrogance to self-loathing and back again. She dumps him.

Mark retreats to his dorm room to get drunk. By 2 a.m. the next morning, he has hacked into Harvard’s computer database, gathered headshots of hundreds of female students, and devised a site whereby the male student body can rate which girls are the hottest. After some tweaks and the financial help of Mark’s best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”), the enterprise eventually becomes “The Facebook.”

It spreads nationwide, but not without ruffling the well-coiffed feathers of Harvard twins who already had approached Mark about crafting a similar site. The venture also attracts the attention of Sean Parker (singer Justin Timberlake), a coke-addled charmer who wields a Svengali-like hold.

Devastatingly funny and on target, “The Social Network” is that rare creature in which truly divergent talents fit together beautifully. Sorkin’s fiercely smart dialogue finds an ideal vehicle in Eisenberg, one of the smartest young actors around. Both script and actor are well served by Fincher, whose meticulous, visually lush direction elevates the film into the realm of Shakespearean tragedy.

The pair also hits upon an ingenious narrative device, framing much of the story in conference rooms where Mark, Eduardo and others are mired in depositions and lawsuits. The structure allows us to hopscotch back and forth between past and present, building toward a coda as withering as it is inevitable. —”Phil Bacharach

Phil Bacharach

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