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‘The Social Network’

“Creation myths always need a devil,” says a character in “The Social Network,” David Fincher’s mesmerizing Genesis story about Facebook. The speaker is a lawyer advising the site’s creator to settle a high-stakes lawsuit out of court. A jury would hate Mark Zuckerberg. He’s condescending, coldly brilliant and peevish. Opposing counsel could demonize him before the first recess.

We meet him as a Harvard sophomore, boring his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) with haughty talk about his school’s elite social clubs, which she, a lowly Boston University student, could never enter. (Neither can Zuckerberg, who is dimly aware he lacks the essential likability to make the cut.) He also jabbers about the number of geniuses in China, oil futures and meteorology, juggling multiple trains of thought while making scant effort to hold a conversation. “Going out with you is like dating a Stairmaster,” the restless girl sighs.

Zuckerberg, played with twitchy intensity by Jesse Eisenberg, has not a moment’s self-doubt about his prodigious intellect. As a human being, however, he is nothing but doubt, fear and insecurity. He is ruled by ambition, impatient to be famous, rich, admired.

“I don’t need friends,” the thin-skinned Zuckerberg snaps when Erica says that’s all she can be for him. He proves it by blogging about her maliciously later that evening. Zuckerberg does have has friend-like connections to a few fellow students, primarily business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose checkbook kept Facebook online in the early days when all that could be said about it was, “It is cool.” There’s a core decency about Saverin, who is the film’s heart, soul and conscience.

As their project grows beyond the campus, it draws the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the bad-boy founder of Napster. At a trendy sushi restaurant, Parker dazzles the maladroit Zuckerberg with his effortless cool. Saverin recoils, offended by Parker’s seductive manner. Like Mephistopheles, Parker tempts Zuckerberg with wealth, sex and fame; it’s no coincidence that he orders a round of Apple-tinis. Parker inserts himself between the partners, maneuvering himself into an ownership stake in their project. Timberlake’s smug charisma and Garfield’s talent for looking hapless and outcast are brilliantly used here.

The script echoes “Citizen Kane’s” labyrinthine structure and fractured chronology. Fincher cross-cuts between Zuckerberg’s rocketing rise and his imperious testimony in two lawsuits by parties who charge — with some justification — that he swindled them out of fortunes. Fincher gives the story the vitality and clear, coherent tension of a thriller.

His use of special effects once again sets a new standard. Fincher cast actor Armie Hammer to play the well-born identical Winklevoss twins who claim that Zuckerberg stole the Facebook concept from them. The director digitally superimposed Hammer’s face on a body double for scores of scenes showing both brothers, to flawless effect.

Fincher shapes scenes and sequences masterfully, gradually shifting our sympathies among a range of flawed, humanly believable characters. You hate them, then you feel their pain. At one point the pedigreed Winklevoss brothers take their complaint before Harvard president Larry Summers, whose sarcastic response strikes the privileged pair like a slap in the face. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (creator of TV’s “The West Wing”), a connoisseur of dark comic injustice, outdoes himself.

For all his double-dealing and hubris, we feel grudging sympathy for Zuckerberg. He’s not the story’s devil, but its Dr. Faustus, selling his soul for worldly glory. He is only one player in an ecosystem of characters trading money, sex and prestige for advantage.

The tale mirrors “Kane’s” story of an isolated, unloved boy who creates a media empire to exalt his ego and punish his foes, leaving a trail of embittered colleagues and betrayed friends in his wake. But it is much more than that, scrutinizing the sexual morals, business ethics and class ideology of our age across multiple levels of society. The film lives up to its all-encompassing title. As a character study and social critique, “The Social Network” won’t just reward repeat viewings, it demands them.

Four stars

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Rooney Mara, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

Directed by: David Fincher

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language