By Felicia Feaster

The Social Network feels like a strange and satisfying blend of two worlds. On one hand, it’s a classic Hollywood screwball comedy in which brainy dialogue ping-pongs with dizzying speed between uber-brainy Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his equally vociferous peer group. “Dating you is like dating a StairMaster” quips his exasperated Boston University girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), of the constant mental work their relationship requires.

But The Social Network also feels, as it should, like a David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) production, steeped in almost perpetual murky darkness, as if some Harry Potter overlord poxed the Harvard campus with an evil spell. 

The opening scene of The Social Network unfolds in what looks like the light-deprived basement of some serial killer's lair. Actually, it's the Thirsty Scholar, a Cambridge pub where Zuckerberg experiences a seminal breakup with Erica that haunts him—as writer Aaron Sorkin (working from Ben Mezrich's book) tells it—through the course of his Facebook career. Zuckerberg may have gone on to create the $25 billion Facebook, Sorkin cautions, but there's very little evidence in The Social Network that it ever made him happy. It certainly didn't win him the girl.

The Social Network is about how Zuckerberg, as an undergrad at Harvard—with a little help from his friends, including business major Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)—came up with the hugely profitable social network "The Facebook." In this less-than-flattering portrait of the difficult mogul, the computer is where Zuckerberg exercises control and dominance.

As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is a watchful, smug, suspicious and distinctly class-conscious sort gazing out from beneath furrowed brows, always ready to lash out at the world before it lashes out at him. When two absurdly WASP-crew superstars, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), try to interest programmer nerd Zuckerberg into launching a Harvard social network, Zuckerberg at first looks flattered. But then the watchfulness and suspicion return: Better still, stick it to the WASPs and do it yourself. A good chunk of The Social Network, therefore, takes place in law-office conference rooms where the Winklevoss brothers and best friend Eduardo Saverin accuse Zuckerberg of, variously, stealing their ideas and bilking them out of their rightful share of Facebook billions.

The Social Network unfolds with the wildfire energy of any good idea that grows into a great one. As The Facebook gains followers, the human architecture of Zuckerberg’s life shifts. Saverin is pushed out by hard-partying Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who talks a mean game but has a weasely way of burrowing into Zuckerberg’s circle of trust.

A ribald geek superhero yarn with a deeply conflicted antihero at its center, The Social Network taps into a key narrative of the internet age: the online world as a forum for our anger and unmet desires.

The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
With Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Bryan Barter, Armie Hammer, Andrew Garfield and Josh Pence

Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
120 min.