An engrossing portrait of Facebook and its creators

How do you distinguish yourself in a roomful of people where everyone has 1600s on their SATs? One answer is offered by The Social Network, the enthralling, near-perfect comedy of manners from David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin: Create the next big thing that everyone in that room - not to mention the known universe - finds indispensable.

The Social Network is many things. It is the origin story of Facebook, an incisive portrait of the dorm hermit who can't read social cues but built the social mousetrap that caught millions, and an acid-etched picture of friends unfriended. Most of all, it is the improbably entertaining story of how new media are altering the very nature of courtship and friendship.

A tack-sharp adaptation of Ben Mezrich's nonfiction The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network begins in 2003, with college sophomores on a date at a Boston bar. It ends in 2008, with one electronically spying on the other.

What Fincher, sharp-eyed chronicler of contemporary masculinity (Zodiac, Fight Club), and Sorkin, keen-eared scribe of modern idealism (The West Wing), do in the intervening two hours is give a vivid history of the here and now. To comic and tragic effect, they show how Facebook (like the telephone and e-mail before it) became a connector that can just as easily distance people as bring them together.

In the filmmakers' view, Facebook, like its creator, Mark Zuckerberg (well-played by a near-robotic Jesse Eisenberg), is incapable of inflection. Mark comes across as enigmatic, both to friends and to fellow students who charge that he stole the idea for Facebook.

Mark is the archetypal Sorkin insider, frustrated that others can't keep up with him. Mark is also the archetypal Fincher outsider, envious that he's missing out.

In a (literally) breathtaking opening that establishes the film's pace and its themes, Mark, a Harvard sophomore, is having a drink with his girl, Erica (Rooney Mara), a Boston University undergraduate.

Words spray from him like foam from a pressurized beer bottle. As he holds forth on his hopes for being "punched" for a final club, Harvard's elite super-fraternities that confer social cachet, Erica shrinks back. After he verbally bullies her, she dumps him. Back at the dorm, he bad-mouths her on his blog, and creates Facemash, where guys rank the comparative hotness of girls, discarding the loser as Mark himself has just been discarded.

But before he can put Facemash online, Mark needs his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, in a performance as expressive and open as Eisenberg's is closed), to write the algorithm. Their little prank receives 22,000 hits in four hours and crashes the Harvard computer network.

While Mark doesn't get punched by a final club, he does get tapped by three members of Porcellian, club of clubs, to write the code for a social network called "Harvard Connection." This brainchild of the patrician Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by genial golden boy Armie Hammer) and their friend, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), is as exclusive as Facebook would be inclusive.

Working with digital cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher characterizes Harvard as a shadowy hive. The tense audio undercurrent designed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross simulates the sound of buzzing bees.

What gives The Social Network its propulsive energy are its flashes forward and back from Facebook's creation to its consolidation. (It swings from Revenge of the Nerd to Revenge on the Nerd.) When Mark might have been sitting on top of the world, he was swatting off lawsuits from Saverin and the Harvard Connection trio.

It's astonishing that a movie mostly set in front of computer screens and in deposition rooms, a movie where the end is already known, has the hold of a suspense film. Fincher and Sorkin tell us what happened. But they involve us, deeply, in figuring out the why.

The story of the two nerds who build Facebook so they can meet girls soon becomes a triangle where the earnest Eduardo and the slithery Internet entrepreneur Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, sensational as a Silicon Valley snake) are rivals for Mark.

When Eduardo looks at Mark, his wounded eyes say, "This isn't strictly business, it's personal." But what can he expect when he's helped make the personal a business?

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at crickey@phillynews. com or 215-854-5402. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at flickgrrl/

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher. With Brenda Song, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Eisenberg, Stream, Joseph Mazzello, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Trevor Wright, Max Minghella, Andrew Garfield. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().