Never Let Me Go

Fidelity can be a downer. Tiger Woods isn’t the only one afflicted; when saddled with a major literary property, filmmakers can be so slavishly loyal that one begins to see why some people break their vows. The poster for Never Let Me Go informs us that the film is based on “the best novel of the decade”—and it’s spelled out like a silent cry for help. Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrator, a “carer” with the Kafkaesque moniker Kathy H., recalls her experiences at a provincial British boarding school called Hailsham during the mid-1990s; but the author gives the impression that Kathy and her classmates exist outside of any time period, or, barring that, only adjacent to one. The creepy-crawly simplicity burrows into your skin from some back door you thought you had closed. I couldn’t tell whether Kathy was a trifle zonked or just egregiously “English”; she describes her sexual explorations like a third party with nary a vested interest in the findings. All of her reminiscences seem to hover in a grayish miasma, perpetually twilit like an autumn drizzle; and Kathy, who’s a carer in both a plot-specific sense as well as a very general one, speaks to us as if we were fellow residents of the parallel universe that she calls home. (The technique conveys alienation, but also a sense that Kathy is picking apart her memories in order to verify them.) At times, I got a Salem-witch-trials vibe: Her nostalgic equivocations are like an insider’s view into The White Ribbon. The big reveal doesn’t come off like a twist; it’s in the ether—it makes everything else seem twisted.

Mark Romanek, the director, handsomely recreates that atmosphere; but the movie is like a storm system that never hits dry land. Think The Ghost Writer but with the paranoia wrung out and replaced by thick, melancholic, “humanist” sludge—a stiff upper lip that I wanted to smack. It isn’t a bad movie—the plot has been restructured by Alex Garland in a serviceably fleet way—but it feels boxed in by the book’s reputation and its own patina of prestige. The performances of two of my favorite up-and-comers (Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, both appositely cast) aren’t of the failing grade that would incite me to tear down their posters from my wall—the pictures aren’t nudes, mind you; those are in my drawer, LOLZ!—but the film has them squishing in their faces, and puling at the woe-is-me pitch that only Academy Awards voters can hear. Keira Knightley, quite irregularly updated to near-modern times, plays Kathy’s snotty, bitchy, and weirdly magnetic confidante Ruth; but her role has been reduced almost to a cameo. (She’s listed as “And Keira Knightley” in the credits.) Somber, dull colors that no kid would want in his crayon box hold the film together visually; but this homage to the novel’s tone is monochromatic in multiple ways. It’s flattening. The mystery isn’t the bread around the plot that makes the literary sandwich; the elements have been condensed into a streaky slathering of tear-jerking mayonnaise.

If there’s one moment in the film that has the potential for making Papa Ishiguro flinch, it comes when Kathy is enraptured by a reverie, slow-dancing with a dormitory pillow while the eponymous oldies ballad wafts up from her cassette-tape player. In the movie, she’s caught not by a member of the Hailsham faculty—who knows, with a tragic inlay, that Kathy’s fate is sealed—but, rather meaninglessly, by Ruth. What’s worse is that our protagonist is holding her partner like a lover; in the book, she’s poignantly, and portentously, nursing it like a baby. Ishiguro’s sense of loss is lost; it’s been miscarried. But I have to be understanding of what Romanek was up against if Never Let Me Go was his baby. He’s part of the same generation of music-video makers that David Fincher hails from, and his work has always had an expressive, energetic kick. But it’s been eight years since his last feature, One Hour Photo, and he was condemned to film-development hell throughout the interim. (It wasn’t all bad luck; he was attached at one point to The Wolfman.) Is it really any wonder, then, that he’s emerged from the fire and brimstone more cautious and penitent than before? He betrays a surplus of tact—perchance even poise—here. Maybe the dreary homily that Kathy delivers at the end is part of a pact that Romanek had to make with the devil; if the filmmaker wasn’t willing to get a little sentimental and mushy, the studios may have never let him go.

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The Social Network

The Social Network, scripted by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, is a remarkably engrossing docudrama. By the time the closing credits began to roll, I’d nearly forgotten that I was in a theater—much less that I had to leave it. I was skeptical at first. Taking off from The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich’s account of the backstabbing and bloodletting that paved the way to 500 million users spending 700 billion minutes a month reenacting Lacan’s mirror stage online, the film version smacked of “trend piece.” Like many new technologies, Facebook has become a drug: a non-essential that we need. I don’t think I’m the sole standout among 500 million junkies who’d describe his or her relationship status with the utility as “complicated”; hell, I’m surely not the only one who’s cracked that now-stale joke. So poor Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest billionaire and the name that used to adorn the bottom of every Facebook page, just seemed to me an all-too-easy butt for we junkies to kick. He’s the kingpin we’re all beholden to, so his dirt being dug up was inevitable. Rolling in his mud might have been our booby prize. Fortunately, one person’s crud can be a sharper someone’s fecund soil.

As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is a minatory Harvard undergrad whose brain lags a few seconds behind his tongue. He has eyes like oily sinkholes, and a brow that stabs inward—like an unflappable vortex. The real-world Zuckerberg isn’t fat, but he has a pudgy face—he looks more like Justin Timberlake, who plays Sean Parker here—and his manner is reticent: defensive rather than offensive. But, though Zuckerberg did not put himself at the disposal of either the book or film, Eisenberg’s non-literal interpretation is less cruel than it’s touted to be. He’s shrimpy but intense, with eyeballs that just might zap you. Provoking people is second-nature to him; he’s a 21st-century underground man, roiling in his own tightly fitting skin, out to destroy the strictures that prevent him from linking into the world beyond his laptop. He’s not a tortured artist whose vision is so ahead of its time that nobody else can even glimpse it, but he might see it that way for self-protective reasons. Perhaps being at preppy, exclusive Harvard has warped his perception; every club that he isn’t cool enough, good-looking enough, rich, or well-connected enough to join sets his sense of injustice aflame. This Zuckerberg is egalitarian but grandiose: jonesin’ for a club with wide-open doors, but only if he’s installed as president.

Fincher’s movie—like Sorkin’s script—is a surface smooth enough to play curling on. But their game is a variant of Rashomon: We don’t see the same scenes from multiple perspectives, but we look at the events the way they’re delivered to us—as testimony from two separate legal hearings. I’d wager a libel suit or two that Sorkin didn’t want his mind wander too far beyond Mezrich’s more-or-less “official” record; when, in one particular scene, Sorkin supplies an explicit “rosebud” for Citizen Zuck, it’s as if this thorn in the movie’s side were pandering to what Orson Welles, years after transforming a long-lost sled into a tragic black plume, dismissed as “dollar-book Freud.” And yet, The Social Network never feels coldly litigious; the characters are fully formed. Only rarely did it seem that something key had been omitted, that we hadn’t enough data to parse.

Vast supplies of digital ink have been wasted—I think—on contorting this film into a critique of the so-called Facebook generation. But, apart from the oft-quoted parting image of Zuckerberg refreshing his ex’s profile over and over—as if performing the rites of an obsessive-compulsive ritual—the movie is smart enough to withhold commentary on the plethora of bad habits that frenzies like Facebook have engendered. Eisenberg’s iGod regnant is no exemplar of his age; he bestrides it, overlooks it. The assumption that he created a social network so that he, too, could be popular, and be quarterback of the football squad, and get to smooch the homecoming queen falsifies exactly what makes him an interesting subject—and an innovator. He may want friends, sure; but he doesn’t want to be like the people he can’t fit in with—he wants their respect. (That doesn’t, however, mean he’s not a status seeker.) Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)—Zuckerberg’s best friend, the movie’s emotional core, and Mezrich’s inside man—is the one who harbors the more conventional dreams. Clinging onto tradition, the film uses him as our man on the inside, too. In terms of what he does, he’s the good guy, and his record goes unbesmirched; but he’s also a pushover—Charlie Brown in a three-piece suit—and thinks in conservative ways that weigh you down when you want to float to the creamy top. He is the type of person who’d have a lot of friends on Facebook, say, but wouldn’t get the front office in Palo Alto, where creativity is key. He thinks inside the box.

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