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The Social Network pokes into the founding of Facebook

Geek squad: Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg confer in The Social Network.

FILM If you didn't happen to attend Harvard University during the academic year of 2003–04, you may have one Erica Albright to thank for the disconcerting number of hours you've spent status updating, friending, defriending, liking, poking, superpoking, cyberstalking, and filling out inane quizzes to determine your spirit animal or which character from Friday Night Lights you are. Erica Albright, it turns out, is Mark Zuckerberg's Rosebud. That is, according to David Fincher's The Social Network, a gripping and entertaining account of how Facebook, which Zuckerberg created, came to take over the known social-networking universe.

In Fincher's version of events — scripted by Aaron Sorkin and based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, in turn based substantially on interviews with FB cofounder Eduardo Saverin, with input from Zuckerberg icily absent — Albright's dumping of Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) on a crisp fall evening in 2003 is the impetus in his headlong quest for a "big idea." The search has its noble beginnings in a drunkenly scripted program allowing Harvardites to judge their fellow students' relative hotness, and it ends, amid some murky shenanigans later to be torturously litigated, in Facebook.

Acknowledging the film's subjective narrative (and the fact that Albright might not exist) seems particularly pressing given that The Social Network is structured around the conference-room depositions for two separate lawsuits, brought against Zuckerberg by Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and by fellow Harvard entrepreneurs Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Josh Pence and Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) for crimes involving intellectual property and vast scads of retributive money. "Depositions" sounds potentially ear-bleedingly dull. They're not, thanks to Fincher's deft storytelling and screenwriter Sorkin's habit of generously investing characters with breakneck verbal pacing and dazzling hyper-fluency in the realm of argument and insult. The litigation scenes are nearly as involving as the flashbacks to Facebook's Cambridge infancy and adolescence in Palo Alto, where Zuckerberg is wooed by the smooth-talking Sean Parker of Napster fame (Justin Timberlake).

Unless Zuckerberg decides to post it on Facebook (which he probably shouldn't, given the nondisclosure vows that capped off the first round of lawsuits), we'll never know what truly motivated him and how badly he screwed over his friends and fellow students. But Fincher and Sorkin have crafted a compelling, absorbing, and occasionally poignant tale of how it could have happened, and given us something slightly creepy to think about as we wander, bored at work or lonely at home, through the empire that Zuckerberg shares with us.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

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