Watching The Social Network is a bit like experiencing The Sixth Sense as envisioned by Sigmund Freud: Producer Aaron Sorkin sees sex. Everywhere. In fact, sex is the central motivation in his version of the Facebook story, where world-changing ideas are the consequence not of creativity but of desire. His much-contested portrayal of Facebook’s founding, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by author Ben Mezrich, envisions the success of Facebook as a by-product of late-adolescent urges.
The need to meet and mate drives this film, which unfolds with founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) dumped by girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). Soon afterward, intoxicated and feeling vengeful toward the female gender, he creates in his Harvard dorm room FaceMash, a “hotties” rating system of women on campus. The ensuing notoriety eventually gains Zuckerberg the attention, and temporary partnership, of the improbably named Winklevoss twins. That partnership does or does not eventually lead, according to certain depositions, to the founding of Facebook.
Sorkin isn’t coy about the motivation of his characters. Sex, remarks the movie version of Zuckerberg, is “why [students] sit where they sit and do what they do.” Early in Facebook’s development, Zuckerberg invents the “relationship status” for individual profiles, a public way to declare romantic affiliations, and pronounces that feature the key to Facebook’s success.
Rare is the critical plot juncture that sex doesn’t sell; it takes a one-night stand with a pretty co-ed to lead Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and his platinum-plated Rolodex to Facebook. Inspired, he helps Zuckerberg and his partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), gather much-needed funding. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg decides to expand his Ivy League-based Facebook to more schools (and eventually, the world), largely because his ex-girlfriend, a Boston University student, has never heard of it. Facebook’s marketing strategy? Impress girls.
Film historian Sam Wasson wrote that in the 1950s every female movie character was either a “slut or a saint.” In the 2000s, Sorkin has reduced the list by one. More robotic props than people, the other female cameos include bong-smokers, one-night stands, and groupies. The only long-term relationship, Eduardo and his jealous girlfriend Christy Lee (Brenda Song), abruptly terminates as Christy sets their bedroom aflame in a psychotic episode worthy of Carrie.
Although the women aren’t smart, the story is. Crisply filmed and thoughtfully acted, it’s an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. Jesse Eisenberg, as Zuckerberg, embraces a complex role, played with a mild touch of autism that makes his character oddly sympathetic. This is revenge of the nerds with dollar signs, as the harried, much maligned genius makes good.
But Eisenberg’s misfit mastermind tries hard—too hard—to fit in, and his failing is much the same as Sorkin’s. The Social Network wants to be a pageant of complex human desires, but unevenly settles for cartoonish characters and old-fashioned sexism. Playing fast and loose with the facts (“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling,” Sorkin told New York magazine), Sorkin is enamored with the theme of a friendless man who invents the idea of friending. He has stumbled into William Thackeray’s territory; this is a story “without a hero.”
As the screen dims for the credits, Zuckerberg is left alone in his corporate headquarters, in front of his computer, attempting to “friend” the girlfriend who dumped him at the movie’s start. He is neither boy genius nor crafty mastermind—just another desperate, lonely reject. Sorkin’s anti-hero is perhaps, in the end, too successful; The Social Network is a movie about relationships that makes relationships seem pointless.