Movies and TV

When Bad People Make Good Drama

Still of Jesse Eisenberg from “The Social Network” (2010), courtesy of Columbia Pictures

David Fincher’s film “The Social Network” begins with an unusually lengthy scene in which two characters sit across from each other bickering in a bar. This scene quickly sets the movie apart from others of today via its long takes and Aaron Sorkin’s disjointed albeit witty dialogue, and it further distinguishes itself from the rest of the movie because it is one of the few scenes in the whole film that features a likeable character. I can’t help but think this is a very deliberate choice; not only does the scene introduce us to the genius and social dejection behind Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), but it pits him against an innocent and intelligent girl (Rooney Mara) who’s simply trying to have a good date with him. After he insults her for going to Boston University and implies she’s a social climber, Mara breaks up with him. She even gives this parting line: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girl’s don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” With a few fleeting exceptions, this line marks the exit of nice guys from the film and the beginning of the asshole parade.

This sounds like a horrible idea on the surface, right? I mean, doesn’t all the dramatic tension of the opening scene come from the fact that it is about two characters with contrasting morals? Besides, how do you spot a protagonist in a sea of bad guys? The answer: you don’t, and that’s exactly why the jerk-laden cast works so well in “The Social Network.” Without a good guy there can be no villain, and this bodes in favor of the relatively current story of Facebook. Should the story have consisted of clear heroes and antagonists, it would not only need to stray far from what is publicly known about the Facebook trials, but it would appear very Hollywood-ized.

Instead of dealing in these terms of black and white, the film’s characters dabble in shades of very dark gray. Eisenberg’s character has the redeeming quality of being a computer genius, yet he scathingly belittles everyone he comes across and shuts his best friend out of their company. Just when Eisenberg’s looking bad, the crew-team Adonises suing him admit they came up with the idea for Facebook to get laid and Eisenberg’s best friend makes crass remarks about Asian women…The characters of this film are clearly not looking for meaningful relationships, but they do each passionately believe that Facebook should be theirs. Therein lies the movie’s drama, and, as audience members, we all watch rapt while these eccentric characters do cutthroat things to both make Facebook what it is and wage war over its subsequent fortunes.

I’m sure many a producer’s note requested a stronger character arc or love interest for Eisenberg, but that would take precious screen time away from the asshole-entertainment factor. And, wouldn’t it seem cheesy to boot? I think the great victory of the film is its choice to focus on morally ambiguous characters and the genesis of Facebook, which is the meat and potatoes of its premise after all. Mark Zuckerberg is still alive and well just as Facebook is still growing and changing, so I’d say Fincher and Sorkin did a wise thing in saving all the ‘nice guys’ and grand epiphanies for the sequel…Can you think of other movies about current events that handled the fresh subject matter either well or poorly?

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