Saturday, October 16, 2010

RED: Dangerously Fun Movie

I liked this movie. See it with Twizzlers and a Coke. Then all three things will be junk that are bad for you, but fun to consume.

The movie title, RED, stands for "retired, extremely dangerous" - and references a bevy of over-the-hill ex CIA operatives who've been put out to pasture, but shouldn't be counted out just yet.

The hero of this story is Bruce Willis's Frank Moses, a legendary CIA killer who's been out of the game for a while, collecting his retirement check in a nondescript white suburban Tudor in snowy Cleveland. As Moses looks around the neighborhood, he sees his door is the only one without a wreath. The next morning, he puts one on, but it won't stay there for long.

You see, a hit squad is after Moses, along with a few of his buds (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helan Mirren) who happened to have been in South America in 1981 when some black ops extraction happened. A few other grunts were there as well, and someone seems to have created a hit list of all the participants. Everyone but Moses and just a few others have already been taken out.

So when Moses wakes up to find his house under fire, he first casually takes down the assassination squad that's after him, then heads to Kansas City to kidnap the girl with whom he's been playing hanky-poo on the phone (Mary-Louise Parker). Since someone's been tapping his conversation, seems she's a target too.

This is one of those CIA in the kitchen movies. By which I mean, everyone's a CIA agent with secret killing powers and super abilities to dodge bullets, stash automatic weaponry, and infiltrate high-security facilities, but in their hearts they're just aging suburbanites. Basically you and I: driving cars, having fights, idle banter, and home decor issues. I think Tarantino may have invented this attitude in Pulp Fiction (in which case, everyone was a mobster with idle banter and decor issues), but it's come and gone through the years. Now with actual spies in suburban kitchens it seems kind of relevant and fun again.

Chasing after Moses and his compatriots is a younger, nicely-haired, more ambitious version of Moses, CIA hitman William Cooper (Karl Urban, of Star Trek and Riddick fame, in fine form). As Cooper chases down Moses, Moses gets the better of him in most of the situations (an argument for experience over youthful vigor). Hence the movie has the feeling of a Tea Party rally for aging Boomers. Essentially, it's a demonstration in favor of old codgers who still have something in them, confirming what every generation suspects: that the next generation just isn't made of the same, stiff stuff. However, Cooper isn't just a foil. He eventually comes to respect Moses, and the two learn that despite the different generations, they have enough in common.

The pleasure of this movie, then, comes in the casual ironies of old-folks staging assassinations and intrigue for old-times sake, and knocking the stuffing out of the younger dudes. Helen Mirren gives some delicious romantic advice to Mary-Louis Parker about how to know when it's time to assassinate the spy you love. Meanwhile, the younger folks - Parker and Urban, primarily - come to respect their elders and possibly learn something from them.

There's not much more to it than that. The revelations about the cover-up of that 1981 operation lend a serviceable third-act showdown between the Milk-of-Magnesia crew and the government baddies. Malkovich is appropriately zany (he was apparently the subject of some LSD experimentation) and, in this age of scandals and lawlessness, casually proven right about all his paranoia. There's a kind of politically incorrect feel to this film, as if there's some secret pleasure to giving it to all those young, healthy, beautiful people in their prime. It's a shame that some of the big moments in the last act are botched (revelations and decisions miss their punch), probably a result of some rushed editing to make it into theaters, as the movie unfortunately expands all its pent-up energy rather willy-nilly towards the end.

With its premise of ass-kicking aging cast-aways, truly this is a Hollywood script, filled with Hollywood resentments. I doubt that there's anything more socially relevant to its subtext than that. Lightweight, then, but like sugar and soda pop, good for a pleasurable, short rush.

Unthinkable: Torturing The Torture Question

This little movie, which may have missed a theatrical release, makes an interesting rental if you're looking for some hard-core morality discussion about the philosophical issue of the efficacy of torture. That is, if you don't mind sitting through two hours of a stage-play version of pretty intense, physical torture and murder.

Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) stars as agent Helen Brody, an FBI agent who's assigned to track down the location of three nuclear bombs that have been hidden in three American cities, threatening to go off in precisely 48 hours. Meanwhile, the terrorist - Steven Arthur Younger (don't you love how terrorists get three names?), who is played with an effective Midwestern accent by brit Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, Underworld), happens to be held in custody by the Feds at a high school in California. Brody is called in along with Samuel L. Jackson (as "H"), a mysterious character who happens to be a master torturer, and whose handlers set him to work on Younger in order to break him down.

While the premise seems like a B-movie version of an episode of 24, the movie is less interested in the ticking clock and the slow suspense of tracking down the bombs than it is exploring the arguments for and against torture, with Brody being maneuvered to play the good cop to H's very very very bad cop. H begins his torture session by chopping off Younger's pinky - and let me just say, it goes on to get worse from there. This isn't a movie for the squeamish. This seems to be precisely the point, as H relents his physical abuse at key points so that Brody can go in and talk reasonably, cajole, and otherwise serve as an emotional counterpoint to help break the terrorist down. She doesn't like participating and wants to stop it, but the orders come on from on high: as long as they are getting information, and possibly saving millions of lives, any level of physical abuse is worth it, or so the American officials argue.

Younger argues (in his abused state he's still somehow able to deliver the type of clearly reasoned counterpoints that usually only come out of Sophomore year-end theses) that the physical abuse only goes to prove how depraved Americans have become. What they are doing is merely another form of murder and terrorism.

With all the action taking place on a stage in the gym of the high school, I wondered throughout most of the film if this wasn't the film version of a stage play. I couldn't find a reference to an original anywhere, but the talkiness of the torturers and the limitation to what's basically a single set gives the film the feeling of issue-based theater. It drove me a bit crazy that with only 48 hours, we never see Brody or her team actually go and do any detective work. Instead, we only get the torture question, and all is left to ride on whether Younger will break. The movie wants to shove us into a narrow funnel that isn't really realistic, but is designed to press a very specific ethical question: how far is it ethical to go in using physical torture and terrorism to extract information designed to save a great many more people from the threat of physical terrorism?

Some will naturally want to argue its not ethical to go there at all, but to me, the real question is whether the moral questions about torture posed by the movie are the right questions in the first place. Brody argues that torture is ineffective - though H does eventually manage in the end to come up with a Jack-Bower-like gambit that gets Younger to confess, well, most of what they want to know. But the confession comes only because Younger - as well as Brody and the American handlers - have become convinced that H is capable of any act of barbarity that will make Younger talk. The movie wants us to understand that in the end, there's no reasoning with terrorism: the only thing a terrorist understands is more terrorism.

What I find unfortunate is that while the movie slowly doles this insight out as some piece of hard-learned wisdom, it seems that Americans are only starting to come to the beginning of a question that has vexed Israelis for fifty years. If the only way to combat terrorism is with terror, we are surely in for a cycle of endless bloodshed and vengeance. This is in fact no answer, but only the beginning of what's indeed a very thorny problem for any modern society that bases itself on democratic values.

The movie is at least willing to start to ask those serious questions, however. Unlike 24, it's not just a pop-terrorism for entertainment. That's why I think it's of note, and possibly worth renting, if you have the stomach for it. Stilted as the dialogue is as a morality tale for the political set, and implausible as the set-up would seem, Moss, Jackson, and Sheen all give fine performances. If you make it all the way through the end, it will surely give you something to talk about.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cold Souls: Searching for Soul

Cold Souls, the first feature-length film from writer-director Sophie Barthes, stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti. Like John Malkovich in Spike Jonze's Being John Malchovich, Giamatti plays himself as a kind of B-level thinking-man's actor who gets involved in some kind of paranormal metaphor for...well, in this case, for the soul.

The premise of Barthes' film has Giamatti rehearsing the part of Uncle Vanya in Chekov's play; if you know Chekov, the play is a sad, soulful Russian lament, and bringing his best to it is taking a toll on the actor. He feels world-weary ("weltschmerz," in German, though Russian would be more appropriate here). When he reads an article in the New Yorker about a doctor who's able to extract a person's soul and put it into cold storage, the idea intrigues him: maybe the process will give him some existential relief, and let him play the part better, as well.

David Strathairn gives a great turn as Dr. Flintstein, who makes the process of soul extraction seem entirely reasonable. He has jars full of extracted souls on his shelves (they come in the shape of small objects: rocks, say, or chewing gum). Flinstein gives Giamatti the full soul-extraction pitch with straight face and full scientific rationale, as if he's talking about bowel cleansing or a gluten free diet.

Giamatti undergoes the process (his soul, it turns out, is the shape of a garbanzo bean). At first excited to be free of his bean-sized angst, he soon discovers that being soul-free is not all its cracked up to be. For one thing, he doesn't have any desire for his wife, any more. For another, his acting has become totally ebullient and misplaced, as if he's doing absurdest schtick in the Catskills. This can't go on, and he soon decides he needs his soul back.

This is where the complications set in, with Russian soul-traffickers stealing Giamatti's soul so that a rich, soap-opera actress can have "the soul of an American actor." All this might seem as goofily hilarious as Jonze's Malcovich if it weren't that Barthes is after something more somber and existential. Giamatti gets the substitute soul of a Russian poet, and we're treated to his memory filing with scenes of large families, enigmatic bald men, and phlegmatic living rooms. Meanwhile, the Russian soul trafficker - who'd stolen his soul to transport it to the would-be actress - decides to help him get it back. It seems that every time she transports another soul, a fragment of it is left behind. So it's not quite clear if she's soulless, or there's some kind of spot on her soul, or she's filled with soul, or some other such phrase.

Which is where Barthes' movie is less clear: just on how we're to understand what all this soul extraction and reinsertion is supposed to symbolize. She plays it less for humor than for some kind of cloudy angst, yet that angst isn't clearly characterized. Giamatti's life remains fairly stock performance, and there's no clues given from the Russian counterparts.

I'm sure this will make some people scratch their heads. Yet the idea of a "soul doctor" who can relieve you of your existential burdens using a device that looks a lot like an MRI machine is surely a ripe one. When the hedge-fund guys come in to evaluate the worth of the souls, you can glimpse just the kind piercing social insight this movie could have. It wants to stay mostly on the level of moody contemplation, with Giamatti doing his best desperate inspired schlub thing. But in this quiet, odd little film made of bits of Russian poetry, sophomore philosophy, and Woody Allen schtick, are true moments of unique inspiration.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Easy A: Sluts and Nerds Rule!

Easy A continues the trend of high-school flicks like Clueless and Juno about smart-mouthed, brainy high-school girls and their foibles. A kind of female Porky’s for the drama-club set, films like Easy A center on the outsiders, not the insiders, but offer the same kind of high-school love triangles, popularity issues, and show-downs at either the high-school dance or the big game. Instead of the nerds and outcasts being the antagonists (as they are in a film like Porkys), the bad-guys in these drama-club high-school films tend to be the jocks and the Christians, who in fair turnabout are portrayed in pure caricature. This film doesn’t disappoint.

While it may not have the wit-a-minute dialogue of Clueless or the clever hijinks of Juno (and the device of narrating the movie into a web-cam wears a bit thin), it holds its own, due largely to the engaging performance of Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombieland) as lead character Olive, a girl whose lies about her dating life threaten to ruin her reputation.

Perhaps in attempt to embrace the literary kids in the audience, a reigning trope of these movies is to borrow some kind of high-school literature to mold the plot around (Jane Austin’s "Emma", in the case of Clueless: Othello and Taming of the Shrew have also served). In this case the English assignment is Nathanial Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter" (there’s even a short summary of the plot, for those who haven’t read it). Olive’s problem, it seems, is that she’s invisible. And as Oscar Wilde said, “one can live down anything except a good reputation.” So she seeks, perhaps perversely, to go about destroying it. When the rumor-mill starts to fly around school that Olive is a slut (even though she hasn’t actually slept with anyone), she literally attaches a scarlet A to her dress, reveling in being the bad girl.

She finds, however, that she can use her bad-girl reputation for good, especially with the guys in school who need their own reputation boost – whether because they are gay, overweight, or sleeping with the guidance councilor. But lending her services as a stage slut, she soon finds there are disadvantages to having destroyed her reputability. For one thing, it’s become harder to get a genuine date.

Except, of course, with the handsome, understanding hunk (Penn Bagley) who’s always hung around in the wings, having a thing for her. She also finds it impossible to get a rise out of her nauseatingly understanding parents (Stanli Tucci and Patricia Clarkson), who are impossibly supportive and hip. (Just to show how hip the parents are, they’ve adopted a black kid – Olive's younger brother – who is given nothing to say in the picture and generally is trotted around like an accessory… a kind of weird liberal racism that would put Angelina Jolie to shame.) None of these super-supportive characters are believable and seem to exist only to eventually extricate Olive out of what is essentially an inextricable situation. (“Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well,” says Benjamin Franklin. Possibly Olive has not read her Franklin.)

In the end, however, Olive is able to explain the whole thing and restore her reputation, but not before a lively, sexy performance with her toy boy at the pep rally for the big game. It’s a solid number and worth waiting for.

So despite its razor-thin characterizations, I do have to appreciate a movie that celebrates sarcasm, has self-aware, confident teenage gay characters, and takes a few good swipes at religion. The movie also has some nice ironic awareness of teen film form (there’s many a reference to John Hughes pictures) and Lisa Kudrow doing her nutty thing as the guidance councilor. It’s a bit lightweight and some of the cutesiness may make you gag, but a solid entry into the canon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Town: Boston Bad Boy Love Fest

Director / leading man Ben Affleck has clearly set out here to make a deeply Boston-inflected anti-hero movie, about a quartet of serious bank robbers and the ring-leader who wants to break away, but for my tastes, he leans too heavily on the anti- to make this film enjoyable.

Doug MacRay and his cronies have grown up in Charlestown, the “Town,” which we’re told at the outset is host to more bank robberies than any other place in America. Perhaps that’s due to the deep-set “town and gown” conflict between the native townies and the imported Harvard yuppies. Affleck, whose relationship to Boston is akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s relationship to Philadelphia (which is to say, symbiotic), gives us all the grit and flattened a’s of the neighborhood, but by now, we’ve seen this story of lovable hoodlums crushed by their neighborhood a bit too many times. So when Doug falls in love with one of the victims of their latest bank heist (whom he’s been assigned to watch to make sure she didn’t see anything that would compromise them with the FBI), we can already tell where this story is going to go: Doug will become increasingly tangled up with Rebecca Hall’s Claire Keesey, which will begin to compromise him in the eyes of his friends. This will lead him to search for a way to break free of his life of crime (and “the town”), all while he’s being pulled back in for one last, big heist (and while being relentlessly tracked down by Jon Hamm’s smarmy FBI agent).

Affleck has toned down and muscled up, and hired Academy nominee Jeremy Renner to portray his hot-headed comrade, so The Town is imbued with all the male self-worship and grunting athleticism of a neighborhood gym. It also lacks a realistic female perspective, as Hall’s character is a mere prop in Doug's eventual extrication of himself from his undesirable situation. But what it lacks in heart, Affleck makes up for in detail. The gang do their robberies in fun Halloween-style masks (the nun masks are particularly inspired), and Hamm’s FBI agent brings the right amount of cocky competence to give this “not-fooling-around” crew a genuine chase. The final big heist at Fenway is also deliciously staged, with a series of cop uniforms that cause just the right amount of confusion.

In fact, what’s most interesting about the film is the series of blue-color costumes that the crew goes through, including not only cops but EMT and transit workers. They are the masks of the invisible crew of working-class men who keep the city operating, and the fact that Most Wanted can camouflage themselves into the background by simply donning them is a great statement about how the “townies” are ignored by the society around them.

If only Affleck had found a way to make more of that idea. Instead, the final set-up has Doug's partners essentially sacrificing themselves once again because Doug's greater intellect and star power needs to come away unscathed. It borders on Affleck worship and given that he’s directing, it’s slightly disturbing. Doug is far from a nice guy – he’s a murderer and a punk – and unlike, say, "The Sopranos," where murderers and punks may seem like your nosy neighbors but eventually get what’s coming to them, The Town posits a morality where ethics applies to everybody but the hero.

You know from the start that Moss’s character will feel betrayed – neigh, practically raped – when she finds out that the guy who’s seduced her is the same one who kidnapped her at a bank robbery a week before. The only mystery is how Affleck, in the story telling, will maneuver things so that she’ll forgive him. That she eventually does so is not only unrealistic, it’s a bit disgusting. That The Town leaves you feeling dirty is no doubt the effect Affleck was going for, though I doubt he was after it in quite this way.

Top Ten Computer Geek Films of All Time

What is a computer geek film? It's a movie about the most nerdy of professions - computer programming - and how the urber nerd either saves the world, nearly destroys it, or, perhaps, changes it completely. Clearly a genre that has only existed since the 1980's, the cyber-geek film enjoyed a hey-day of sorts in the mid-nineties, when all things cyber were hip as well as fashionable. That's why this list of top ten films contains four from 1995 (the dawn of the internet era), more than any other year. But with two films making the list so far this year, 2010 is shaping up to be another bonanza year for the computer geek. Perhaps this is a harbinger of another internet bubble about to come.

And so, without further ado, here are the top ten computer geek films of all time.

10. The Net (1995) – With the unlikely casting of Sandra Bullock as a computer programmer who stumbles across an online conspiracy, The Net defines a whole genre of films I like to call “get-the-disk” movies: it doesn’t really matter what’s on the disk, the point is there’s a floppy disk (or nowadays, flash drive) that everyone’s after. One of the first films to integrate the internet into its story line, it did so a bit awkwardly, but with panache.

9. Johnny Mneumonic (1995) – Based loosely on a series of short stories by cyberpunk founder William Gibson, Johnny Mneumonic is a triumph of casting over substance, with Keanu Reeves creating his signature role as a super geek (he can hold something like an entire terabyte of digital content in his brain, although at that volume it tends to leak). Henry Rollins Jr. is perfectly mid-Nineties period as a punked-out brain doctor, and there are enough Japanese stunt men wielding high-tech shurikens to put the Kill Bill movies to shame.

8. Virtuosity (1995) –The early nineties saw a wave of “virtual reality” movies, including the Gibson adaptation Lawnmower Man and the noir-inflected The Thirteenth Floor. The idea of virtual reality is that computer geniuses are able to program a reality that’s more convincing than the real thing – or at least identical. The genre didn’t lend itself to great drama, but Virtuosity, with Russell Crow as a virtual serial killer and Denzel Washington as the cop on his tale, is the best of these.

7. Middle Men (2010) – A loving story about who two horny guys who accidentally invented the online credit card payment gateway while trying to find a new way to jack off, and how the Russian mob moved themselves into the business. Based on some real internet history, the movie emphases gangsters over software code, but it delivers a great back story on the seamier side of the internet, without which none of our high-flying firms like eBay or Facebook would be possible.

6. Live Free or Die Hard (2007) – The fourth Die Hard movie casts Justin Long, of the Mac/PC commercials fame, as an unlikely geek who gets in the way of super-cop John McClane and ends up helping him save the world from a bad-guy hacker played by Timothy Olyphant. Exposing the vulnerable nature of our online digital infrastructure, this Die Hard makes geeks cool while weaving a healthy quotient of car chases and explosions into a story that’s essentially about a giant systems crash.

5. Hackers (1995) – This fun little flick staring an impish Angelina Jolie and a pouty Johnny Lee Miller (whose career, unfortunately, never really took off from here) escaped the notice of critics, but really captured the “hacker” generation like no other. Hacking was both a mid-Nineties cultural moment (a combination of spandex pants, anime, laptops, and roller blades, otherwise known as “cyberpunk”) and a test of programming skill and braggadocio, really a kind of geek-boy rap culture. The test was to break into some big, secure, computer somewhere (government computers always better) and leave your mark of harmless fun, your cyber “tag” if you will. Embodying the utopian, anti-corporate ideals of the internet revolution – the exact opposite of, say, Sorkin’s money-loving protagonists in The Social Network – organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation keep the hippie hacker spirit alive today.

4. The Social Network (2010) – Writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have delved deeply into the Facebook creation myth, as well as the personality of its creators and founders: the uber-geek Mark Zuckerberg, the loyal Eduardo Saverin, and former Napster bad-boy, Sean Parker. The result is a kind of West-Winginization of a digital start-up, replete with hard-drinking coding contests, but a compelling story, nevertheless. Its implicit critique of this supremely a-social set may be harsh - unlike earlier generations of cyber heroes, the young Zuckerberg and Parker are clearly more enraptured with dollar signs than friendships - but most younger audiences will see these instant billionaires as heroes, not losers.

3. Tron (1982) – In 1982, Disney stumbled upon a kind of zeitgeist magic with this little fable about a video-game/programmer geek who accidently gets himself digitized into the guts of a computer. Turning programming lingo into a kind of Aesop's fable (with the “CPU” as the Wizard behind the curtain, or the Queen of Hearts, if you will), what really made this movie shine were the special effects – one of the first to use computers to achieve a look never seen before. In Tron, for the fist time, the visuals were the metaphor. The original effects have been far surpassed now, but it was a cinematic moment capturing the awe, magic and wizardry of the new world of computers that could only happen once in history (as the remake, fun as it is likely to be, will no doubt demonstrate).

2. War Games (1983) – The quintessential hacking movie, in War Games, a fifteen year old Matthew Broderick and his girlfriend (played by Ally Sheedy) break into a defense department computer and accidentally almost start World War Three. Makes us remember that the internet is an invention originally intended to help civilization survive a nuclear war, War Games also found that perfect dramatization of the power of computer programming, giving us a very simple programming task that could initiate Armageddon. Perhaps software and computers have become too sophisticated to ever capture a programmer’s drama in so satisfyingly a simple manner again; or perhaps our fears a no longer as straightforward as they were during the Cold War. Either way, War Games is one of the great computer fables of all time.

1. The Matrix (1999) – In 1999, the Wachosky brothers took that decade’s earlier cultural mix of cyberpunk, post-modern French philosophy, AI, virtual reality, computer hacking, and the net to concoct an entirely new world of artificial, computer-programmed reality, and a hero-hacker – Keanu Reeves' Neo – who must wake up from artificiality and do battle with deadly computer programs. A kind of Tron on steroids, with a good infusion of Baudrillard to boot, The Matrix introduced a whole new bag of special effects (including the now-cliché “bullet time”) and a whole new level of computer-saturated reality. Still the benchmark of computer geek movies, The Matrix may yet take another decade of RAM miniaturization to surpass.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network: An Anti-Social Critique

Writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have taken one of the more interesting stories of the internet age – the founding of social network Facebook in a Harvard dormitory, and the resulting lawsuits from competing entrepreneurs – and turned it into both a riveting drama for the millennium generation and a generalized critique of that very same generation. The result, overwhelmed as it is with Sorkin’s run-away dialogue and madcap pacing, may nevertheless be the best telling yet of internet entrepreneurs and the seismic influence they have had in transforming our economy and society.

The Social Network is also a story about one such obsessed computer genius: Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student who created Facebook in 2004 and in the process embroiled himself in legal troubles with the university, as well as with competitors and friends. As such it starts precisely where it should: explaining why Zuckerberg is terrible with girls (he tells his date, who attends Boston University, that the fact that she goes to BU means she essentially can’t understand academic pressures), and how that leads him to create Face Mash, a “hot-or-not” site with hacked pictures of all the female faces from Harvard house websites. Zuckerberg’s act is both the childish revolt of a wounded nerd (he’s just been dumped by said girlfriend) as well as his awkward way of being accepted by the much cooler jocks and wealthy studs of Harvard’s elite. Zuckerberg has both an extreme case of ODD (his personality is essentially a more humorless version of physics genius Sheldon Cooper on “Big Bang Theory”) as well as a dangerous amount of sublimated wounded self-esteem and rage. It’s the type of deadly combination that produces both serial murderers as well as serial entrepreneurs, and Sorkin and Fincher seem to be implying that it’s just a fortunate quirk of fate that what we’re about to see in Zuckerberg is the latter. (Perhaps because Fincher just showed us the former in the movie Zodiac, he’s qualified to make the cinematic comparison.)

It’s at this moment, as Zuckerberg is finally getting the welcome attention of the jocks as well as some unwelcome attention from the University, that he’s approached by a pair of twin crew jocks (the Winklevosses) and their best friend, who have been working on a social network for Harvard they call The Harvard Connection. The trio are looking for a new programmer for the site, and impressed with Zuckerberg’s abilities on the Face Mash stunt, they hire him to work on their site. Only…instead of creating The Connection, Zuckerberg spends his time creating his own version, which he calls TheFacebook and which he believes is filled with features and insights that only his genius mind could dream up.

The problem is, despite actor Eisenberg’s “genius” stuttered rapping of social critiques and Fincher’s dramatic portrayals of all-night hacking sessions, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem – at least to me – that much of a genius. The “hacking” of the Harvard photos is actually a fairly simple trick that any CGI programmer could accomplish; his “genius” TheFacebook feature insights (such as indicating your marital status) are routine interactive features (even for 2004), and it's his roommate who comes up with the formula for social evaluation, not him. All that Zuckerberg seems to contribute to the enterprise is fanatical devotion to the outcome and a kind of seething malevolence towards the social world he’s trying to connect. Perhaps Fincher/Sorkin intend us to read Zuckerberg this way, in which case…ouch. Even Bill Gates parodies on the Simpsons are given better treatment.

But I don’t think so. There’s also a kind of lionization of Zuckerberg as an internet icon – as in, great men who see great things by nature have to be jerks to get there. That kind of explains Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and a come-along investor in Facebook, as an internet super-jerk. When Zuckerberg meets the preening, self-absorbed Parker (“what’s cool is a billion dollars”), he falls into a kind of start-up love, and we can see that it’s just a few steps from there to dumping his roommate/partner in order to move up in the internet social world.

It also explains why there were so many twelve- to eighteen-year-olds in the audience. These kids have grown up with Facebook and, like Fincher/Sorkin, must see Zuckerberg as a kind of mythical hero. For them, the movie must resemble Greek tragedy, replete with old-thinking adversaries (Larry Summers’s Harvard President provides one) and tales of mayhem and adventure, all to get to the promised land: a cool San Francisco office with Foosball tables and Aeron chairs. In this view, Zuckerberg's obvious preference for computer screens over real-life girls and his willingness to dump his best friend at the first glimmer of a lot of cash is merely the hero's Achilles heel, not a full-featured social critique.

Thankfully, Fincher/Sorkin are clear-eyed enough to complicate the picture (even if their critique of the anti-social nature of social networks is - at least if you believe an internet sociologist like Clay Shirky - way off the mark). This complication comes in the form of a pretty stark (and snarky) comparison between Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness and the true friendship between the Winklevoss trio. In a lovely inversion, the "Winklevi" are derided for their money and devalued in the internet pantheon because of their athletic ability. But they do come together with their friend to support each other and work by consensus. This is compared favorably to Zuckerberg’s geeks trio with Parker and his roommate Eduardo Saverin, who bicker constantly and eventually all turn against each other. In the final scene, Zuckerberg is left alone with his multi-billion-dollar creation – a kind of Frankenstein, it might seem – still trying to connect with the girl who dumped him. The implication here is that Zuckerberg represents an entire generation of geekified social networkers, whose only means of connecting with each other is through the artificial mass-communications of online websites: in person, they have no social skills whatsoever. Not that the earlier generation of academics and administrators are portrayed any better. But there is an odd kind of love for the camaraderie of sports, the purity of physical friendships, as compared to the distancing of the machine. Zuckerberg hires his interns by seeing which one can crack into a database first while doing multiple shots, but he barely speaks to them, and never bothers to learn their names. Parker likewise doesn't bother to learn the name of the girl he's sleeping with while he discovers the Facebook site as the hot new thing. This social network thing, the filmmakers are saying, is far from social: more like an insidious way to substitute for real connection, and a way for a very few lucky, ruthless people to make a very great deal of money.

On the other hand, the closing title cards do kind of say it all. The Winklevosses were paid off 65 million to go away; Facebook is now valued at over 25 billion. That makes Zuckerberg’s creation more valuable within five years than Cablevision/NBCU, the combined Continental/United Airlines, or the controversial bailout of the auto industry. Fincher/Sorkin’s movie will probably rake in 200 mil when all is said and done. Interesting and breathless as it is, as someone like Shirky might point out, that makes it worth less than one percent of the total Facebook story.