The Social Network, Solitary Man reviews

The post-TIFF Oscar handicappers already have The Social Network at the top of a list of Best Film candidates. I’d say the picture’s got pretty good odds in that it’s quality drama and very much of its time, about the founders of Facebook. And it does something that’s very hard to do: It simplifies and dramatizes a complex subject and history so deftly it makes you feel smarter just by watching it. People love that.

You’ve got David Fincher directing and Aaron Sorkin doing the script duties, a pair whose fastidious ways seem perfectly united in pictures and words. Fincher knows about a twisty, multi-layered plot with many characters as he showed so convincingly in Zodiac. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an ambitious experiment gone awry, but I would say that even there he showed his typical stylistic austerity of vision. Of all American directors, Fincher has most closely followed Stanley Kubrick’s clinical aesthetic. And Sorkin, who gave us years of the best show on TV with The West Wing, adapts the Ben Mezrich book with his typical cleverness and economy.

The opening scene where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is on a date with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) sets the talky tone of the piece. It’s a brilliant cross-section of Zuckerberg’s character strengths and weaknesses. He’s an amazing thinker while being massively insecure. He compensates by injecting his frustration at being a nerdy, Jewish outsider in the WASPY halls of Harvard into this web idea he has, all in the effort to be popular, to get girls and show everyone he’s got what it takes to achieve, to be as good as everyone else. No, to be as cool as everyone else. And that’s why, even as he does despicable things and fucks over his friends, I was still able to feel sympathy for him. He’s the protagonist and antagonist in this story. You root for him and against him as it goes along, and the razor line Eisenberg and filmmakers walk to keep and challenge the audience’s allegiance is maybe the film’s most impressive accomplishment.

There is a lot more to enjoy in the film, too. There’s the subtle and not-so-subtle criticisms of western oligarchy, replicating itself generation after generation in the ivy-gripped halls of academe. There’s a story of friends, how ideas and ambition and big money can wreak havoc on relationships. There’s a few sweet revenge fantasies played out, and how envy can drive people to make a lot of bad decisions. And there’s a great illustration of a real American dream, how one guy with the right idea at the right time can change society entirely. And make cash in fuck you quantities.

I liked the graceful way Fincher uses special effects. Armie Hammer plays the twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, and through a deft use of body doubles and computer and camera effects, you never once believe they are not two people. Though I will say CGI snow is no more convincing than potato flakes and computer generated wintry breath doesn’t really look like actual breath.

She only has a brief role but I very much enjoyed Mara as Zuckerberg’s girlfriend Erica and look forward to seeing her in Fincher’s version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Justin Timberlake brings the required charisma of Napster founder Sean Parker to the story. And I liked Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, though, knowing he is about to become Peter Parker in the new Spider-Man reboot, I have a complaint. The guy looks like Chris Isaak, and anyone I’ve ever asked thinks Chris Isaak is a good-looking guy. That was the great thing about Tobey Maguire… he was so believably nerdy. Spider-Man needs to be a nerd… this guy is tall and lanky and so not a nerd. But, hey, maybe he’ll surprise me.

Anyway, sorry for the digression.

I did very much enjoy The Social Network. When I got home and checked Facebook, it made me pause and think about the very act of doing that, how over the past three years it’s become second nature, and why it’s so bloody addictive. Seems so obvious, doesn’t it?

In the past 12 months we’ve had A Single Man and we’ve had A Serious Man. Now, to add to the title similarity confusion, we have Solitary Man.

What’s that line from Dangerous Liaisons? I’ll paraphrase, but I think this is pretty close: “One doesn’t applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.”

And so, watching Michael Douglas essay another sleazy corporate cad, I say, yeah, so what? He can do this kind of guy in his sleep, and I think he may have in other movies. He’s revisited one in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps this very month, his Oscar-winning character Gordon Gekko.

That said, it’s a great part. In Solitary Man, now on DVD, Douglas is Ben Kalmen, a former and perhaps future auto dealer who once had a chain of car lots all over New York, but blew it when he doctored the books. He blew it with his wonderful wife (Susan Sarandon) by cheating on her. As we spend a few days with him, he screws up his new relationship by sleeping with the 18-year-old daughter (the unfortunately named Imogen Poots) of his girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) and finds his plans for a new business derailed. It’s a crisp 90 minutes of an oily dude headed for disaster who doesn’t seem to know how to stop his bad decisions, alienating everyone around him, family and friends. He eventually looks for help from an old college buddy, played by Danny DeVito.

There is a lot to like here in Brian Koppleman’s film, especially in seeing Douglas and DeVito together again… the actors are old friends and worked together in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Douglas produced), the Romancing The Stone movies and War of the Roses. But there are also a handful of dud scenes, stuff that is tonally wrong or just doesn’t quite work… Kalmen strikes up an instant friendship with a college guy played by Jesse Eisenberg (him again) that stretches plausibility.

But the movie is really just a life-support system for this character, and Douglas is so comfortable in this guy’s suits, it’s hard to turn away as the gutter and another woman far too young for him, beckon.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.