Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest billionaire

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the age-old story that pits the jocks against the geeks in a power play for popularity, only this time around there’s more at stake than just getting in with the cool kids. There’s a multi-billion dollar idea up for grabs, and it takes place at Harvard, which means that everyone, even the buff, blonde crew team champs, the Winklevoss twins, are just as smart and ambitious as the king geek, Mark Zuckerberg. Played by Jesse Eisenberg (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) as supremely nerdy, even witheringly so, Zuckerberg is seldom without his uniform of baggy sweatshirts and Adidas sandals with white socks, all items of clothing not seen much in the Harvard final clubs (Fox, Phoenix, Porcellian) Zuckerberg is obsessed with. When he finds himself unable to get into any of them, and his girlfriend dumps him for his pathetic obsession with Harvard’s social elite, Zuckerberg and his roommates write an algorithm that soon spawns Facebook, or The Facebook, as it was originally called.

One of his roommates is also his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, from whose perspective the book Accidental Billionaires was written and Aaron Sorkin (THE WEST WING) used to write the screenplay. That’s not to say the whole film is biased in Saverin’s favor, but it does mean that Saverin’s acceptance into The Phoenix is used as the reason for Zuckerberg’s eventual double-cross. Take that with a grain of salt. While Zuckerberg never loses his appetite for fame and popularity, by the time Saverin sues him Facebook is already a billion-dollar company; One would hope that achievement would eclipse a rejection from even the most prestigious of Harvard’s social clubs. On the other hand, Zuckerberg really does appear to have stolen the initial concept for Facebook from a pet project of the aforementioned Winklevoss’ (referred to by Zuckerberg in the plural as the Winklevi) and their friend, who came up with the idea for a Harvard-only online club called The Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg studied their algorithm and, a month or so later, came up with his own, the Harvard-only online club, The Facebook.

Whoever’s side you’re on, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a captivating, if exhausting group portrait of intelligent, talented and enterprising young undergrads who operate under their school’s universally acknowledged code of ethics, Harvard Law. So when one member of that group, the unscrupulous Zuckerberg, breaks that law, everyone finds themselves in way over their heads, Zuckerberg included. This is a dramatic set-up, to be sure, which is why the added drama from director David Fincher (FIGHT CLUB, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) and Sorkin’s script push it over the top. The Winklevi actually say things like “Let’s bash this nerd!” and Saverin and Zuckerberg both pout like moody children during their legal hearings; Saverin swivels his chair away from the table to face the window, upset that his buddy and business partner backstabbed him, and at one point in a heated back-and-forth between Zuckerberg and the prosecuting attorney, Zuckerberg stops short and announces in an uncharacteristically diminutive voice that “it’s raining.” Ohh, the clever use of symbolic rain! Cuz things aren’t going well for our protagonist. Get it, audience?

Despite the rapid fire dialogue, heavy with quick wit and carefully constructed, long-winded sentences, THE SOCIAL NETWORK remains in the realm of children’s story hour. The undergrads assume an adult-like sophistication and vocabulary, but despite their knowledge of business terminology they behave like spoiled and impetuous brats who are still young enough to believe that the world really does revolve around them. The adults, like adults in children’s books, are solemn and staid and completely immune to humor. And like a children’s book, it all comes down to learning a lesson about friendship and behaving nicely. Saverin seems wiser for the journey, but it’s not clear how seriously Zuckerberg takes the consequences of his actions. His withdrawn expression conceals any feelings that resemble those commonly held by real live human beings. And with motives that were despicable from the start, how badly can you feel for him? Frankly, everyone is so self-serving that you want them to get hurt and learn their lesson. Everyone except Saverin, that is, the only person able to maintain some semblance of respectability. Did I mention the movie is based on his book?