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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Performances: Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

As depicted in The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is a man who is so smart and yet so, so dumb. Sit him in front of a computer for ten minutes and he'll find a way to wreak havoc, but put him in an ordinary social situation and watch his brain short circuit. Part of what makes Jesse Eisenberg's performance so fantastic is that he's able to convey that sense that something "does not compute" for Mark without simply making him look perplexed every time someone confronts him. Rather than contorting his face into a look of confusion, he gives off a palpable attitude that the people around him are not behaving in a logical way. His inability to engage with people on an emotional level is what makes him such a frustrating and fascinating character.

The first scene in the film sets Mark up for us perfectly. He jumps through the hoops of a conversation, moving so fast from one point to another that his girlfriend can barely keep up. He becomes offended when he perceives her to be implying that if he wants to be in a club, he ought to pursue the one that's easiest to get into, and yet completely fails to understand how he could possibly have insulted her by stating that she doesn't need to go home to study because she "only" goes to Boston University. This scene, and the way that Eisenberg plays it, tells us a few things: Mark's brain moves very, very fast; Mark can pick up on when he is being slighted; Mark is so lacking in self-awareness that he cannot see his own bad behavior. Needless to say, by the end of the scene he is single.

But, it isn't just women that Mark has difficulty relating to. His interactions with his friend (and later rival) Eduardo are not that different, with him often failing to see how his words might hurt Eduardo and failing to take into account how his actions could affect their relationship. When Eduardo is finally pushed out of Facebook and reacts angrily, Mark seems baffled by it. If Eisenberg's performance weren't so strong, this wouldn't work at all because you just wouldn't believe that Mark could be so dense. How could he possibly think that Eduardo would react any other way? Eisenberg makes it clear that Mark proceeds with a kind of tunnel vision that doesn't allow him to take stock of all the collateral damage collecting around him. He just blows through people on his way to his goal and then has to pay for it later.

Eisenberg plays Mark with an easy, dry wit and an intense focus. He makes no bones about the fact that he believes himself to be superior to just about everyone around him but is also able to express a sense of awe when it comes to Sean Parker. Sean is the superstar who seduces Mark with tales of how Facebook - and by extension Mark himself - can become better, more powerful, more ubiquitous. Mark's admiration for Sean consistently comes through, which helps make him seem like a more human character. As the film draws to its conclusion - with Mark having become somewhat disillusioned with Sean and aware of all the things he's lost in his quest for dominance - he only becomes more human. His isolation is entirely of his own making, but we can still feel for him since he still doesn't quite understand how he's managed to set himself so far apart from everyone else. Mark is in many ways an impenetrable character but Eisenberg is able to show some of the layers beneath the surface, allowing us to engage with him even as he remains distant.


Tom Clift said...

This is a fantastic write up! Personally, I think Eisenberg gives the best performance of the year, hands down, and you did a great job of conveying why.

Even in the scenes when he’s just in the background, you can see in his eyes that he’s constantly calculating. The performance is incredible focused, and you get a real sense of how singularly driven the character is. Compelling stuff.

Norma Desmond said...

I think it's a tricky role because it requires a somewhat robotic affect but Eisenberg makes that seem natural.