Oscars: How 'The Social Network' became this year's 'Up in the Air.' Will anyone join me in a backlash to the backlash?
Image Credit: Merrick Morton; Dale RobinetteOkay, I’ll own up to it. When it comes to predicting the winners of the Academy Awards, I’m a shameless amateur. An Oscar pariah wiener. At this point, it’s clear that I should simply leave the odds-making to my infinitely shrewd colleague Dave Karger, who had the Zen wisdom to see, weeks before anyone else, that despite the mountains of praise and accolades heaped upon The Social Network, The King’s Speech was still going to push all those Academy buttons — that it was exactly the kind of tastefully uplifting spectacle of Classy Anglophilia meets the Cinema of Affliction (think Ordinary People + My Left Foot + every British costume drama that ever got you to sniffle through a stiff upper lip) that is still, after all these years, catnip to a great many people who work in Hollywood. The PGA, the DGA, and SAG have all spoken. They all prefer The King’s Speech to The Social Network. So be it.
What interests me is that this lagging, if rather abrupt, indicator of collective underwhelmed response to The Social Network isn’t merely going on within the Hollywood guilds. All over the Internet — I’ve encountered it, quite often, on the comment boards of this site — moviegoers are standing up, with an “I’m Spartacus!” solidarity, to declare their doubts, their latent shrug, their dutiful respect but definitive lack of love for what was, up until a few weeks ago, the most robustly acclaimed movie of the year (and also, not so incidentally, the most popular acclaimed movie of the year). The responses go something like this: “The Social Network was overhyped.” “It was okay, but far from great.” “I mean, what were the critics gassing on about?”
Hey, if that’s how a lot of people feel about it, then that’s how they feel, right? To object can sound like a critic’s sour grapes. Except that I can’t help noticing, and wondering about the fact, that the backlash against The Social Network carries such a familiar echo of what I kept hearing last year about Up in the Air. Overrated. Kind of thin. What’s the big deal, anyway? At the time, I chalked up the niggling backlash of disenchantment with Up in the Air to several things about it. A lot of the movie’s bashers seemed to loathe the ground, or maybe the air, that George Clooney walks on (which makes you wonder how they’d react if he ever costarred in a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow), and the fact that he played a corporate jet-setter, always flying away from all that downsizing despair, seemed to stick in a lot of people’s craws.
But The Social Network, though I guess you’d have to say that it, too, is about members of the affluent elite (then again, so is The King’s Speech), is a very different movie from Up in the Air. It’s not a felicititous lark of a romantic comedy, or an exquisitely touching movie-star vehicle. It’s fast and brittle and nervous and icy-heady-cool, wired to the speed of minds that are hooked to technology. And frankly, the uncanny repetition of the criticism — Just okay! Not all that! Another empty critics’ darling! — has me wondering: Could it be that the real reason people are reacting against these movies isn’t that the movies are underwhelming…but that they’re understated? That they’re both spun from a superfine psychological mesh? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that, as different as the two films are, the kind of subtle and light-fingered dramatic nuance that both The Social Network and Up in the Air turn on ended up working against them.
To me, part of the power of The Social Network is that you could take any dozen people who like it — who think that it’s flawlessly written, directed, and acted — and put them in a room together, and you’d find that they don’t necessarily agree on what the movie is saying: what its real take is on the Facebook revolution, or whether the Mark Zuckerberg it portrays is more of an awesomely driven yet loutish betrayer or a visionary renegade-brain hero. That’s what makes The Social Network, to me, the kind of movie that you can watch again and again, like All the President’s Men or Sweet Smell of Success. That, I thought, is what the praise for it was all about. It’s enough to make me wonder whether the Oscar-death-by-deflating-pinpricks it’s now on the receiving end of is really the covert expression of a hostility to any movie that is daring, and artful, enough to ask for our engagement without showing us its hand.
So will anyone join me in the backlash to the backlash? The King’s Speech tweaked my heartstrings, too (hey, I’m not made of stone), but does that really mean that it’s a greater movie than The Social Network? Or does the fact that The Social Network, like Up in the Air, is such a critics’ darling say more about critics than it does about the movies? If so, what do you think it says?