© 2010 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc.
It's lonely at the top for Zuckerberg (played by Eisenberg).
The Dinner : Burrito and Bud at Chipotle


Mark Zuckerberg Dines Alone

© 2010 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc.
It's lonely at the top for Zuckerberg (played by Eisenberg).
The Dinner: Burrito and Bud at Chipotle Mexican Grill (1501 Third Ave).

The Movie: The Social Network at Pacific Place (600 Pine St.).

The Screenplate: When the shy, geeky, passive-aggressive Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg is taken to a fancy Manhattan restaurant by a future partner/mentor, he has no idea what to order. He wears a Gap hoodie and flip-flops most of the time; he's barely accustomed to life outside his dorm, away from his precious computer, on which he's created the initial collegiate-only version of Facebook, then with around 1,000 users on Ivy League campuses. That's not a problem for his dining companion, the slick, savvy founder of Napster, Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), who confidently orders appletinis and expensive Asian fusion appetizers for their table. Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) promptly develops a man-crush on Parker. In the scene you realize how the sheltered programmer not only doesn't know how to order, he barely knows how to eat. Sharing a table with Parker and two gorgeous Asian girls, he has no idea how to socialize or flirt. He's a terrible talker, hardly makes eye contact, and on those rare occasions when he speaks directly, it's usually a put-down. Low man on the Harvard totem pole, desperate to be invited to join one of its secret societies, he's an underminer who resents anyone who is invited. All of which leads us to a Mexican restaurant where solitary diners stare intently at their smartphones, checking their Facebook pages...

A clean, new, and very self-consciously modern Mexican joint on the corner of Third and Pike, Chipotle Mexican Grill is part of a national chain that, like Facebook but on a smaller scale, grew from a small entrepreneurial idea into a successful publicly traded company. Founded in Denver in 1993, Chipotle's basic notion was Mexican plus natural. Its motto: "Food with integrity." It's grown to a chain of over 1,000 quick-stop eateries located in over 30 states, with a market cap in the neighborhood of $5.5 billion (about one-fifth of Facebook's present value).

If Zuckerberg's basic idea, as he explains to fellow student and business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), is to transfer the collegiate social experience online, the Chipotle formula was to transfer the Mexican food experience into a healthier realm, with all the grease and goo taken out. Just as Zuckerberg and company compulsively track their number of users (first only collegians on The Facebook, circa 2004, then the rest of us on Facebook to follow), Chipotle is all about the metrics: calorie counts are plainly posted (on a sliding scale) on the menu; each extra dollop of salsa or guacamole has a price and a caloric value. My price check for a very tasty chicken burrito, extra guac, and a Bud was $11.28. The posted calories are harder to track, since the burrito slides from 350-930. (Also be warned the place closes at eight o'clock if you're racing to make a movie; but it's also very fast.)

Your order gets bigger by increments as you slide your cafeteria tray past the prep area, where orders are plainly assembled in view. You can clearly see what's happening with your food, monitor its progress, much as friends check in on one another on Facebook. Another way of thinking of it: There's not much privacy at Chipotle, where most of the solitary tables are positioned in the middle of the restaurant. Outside, pedestrians can easily peer into the corner location, just as you can stare out the widows. Inside, the music's a little too loud for easy conversation.

Today, as the world's youngest billionaire, it's doubtful that Zuckerberg eats at Chipotle. But the food has the same healthy, portable vibe found in any high-tech corporate campus cafeteria. It's something you can grab and go between meetings, food to be wolfed down while standing at one of the tall little tables, fuel between marathon programming sessions.

It's also doubtful that the Hollywood talent behind The Social Network, one of the year's best movies to date, ventures to Chipotle very often. Or maybe their personal assistants do take-out orders for director David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club), writer Aaron Sorkin (the West Wing guy), and producers Kevin Spacey and Scott Rudin. Working from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, they weave back and forth among legal depositions after Facebook's success and the early Harvard days where Zuckerberg--depending on whose account you believe--stole ideas from several parties to create that nascent website.

For a company, Facebook, that's very much about typing and looking at photos, The Social Network is almost entirely about talking. Sorkin specializes in dialogue among very smart, articulate, and flawed people. No one's an outright villain, because everyone contributed something valuable to Zuckerberg's rolling ball of snow. It just keeps getting larger with every idea he overhears, borrows, or originates on his own. His genius is to give Facebook "exclusivity," like those private clubs at Harvard.

If the movie is most exciting during Zuckerberg's campus frenzy to launch his site before a pair of identical twin rivals (towering Wasps to this slouchy Jew), it actually becomes sadder and more engrossing during the next two acts. Zuckerberg the budding mogul manages to betray and lose his only friend, Saverin, and each of his angry outbursts betrays some of that awareness. Like any obsessive programmer, he has a trace of Asperger's, the ability to shut out the world and code. But if a guy's feelings can be hurt, as Zuckerberg's clearly are, he has feelings. It's very much to the credit of gifted actor Eisenberg (Zombieland, The Squid and the Whale) that he never makes Zuckerberg a sociopath. Arrogant, angry, touchy, thin-skinned, impatient, ambitious--yes, he's all of those things. These are grand Kane-like passions trapped within a dweeb who's anything but flamboyant. Much as Zuckerberg is impressed by Parker, it's clear he'll never be like Parker, a drug-sniffing party dude.

In the Sorkin universe, instead, our flaws and slights are scaled upward. If Zuckerberg begins the film as a lonely, insecure outsider, that's essentially where he'll finish--only in a penthouse, not a dorm room. You can't call a guy who went from Exeter to Harvard an underdog or a victim of discrimination. If he's ostracized, the movie makes clear, he's mostly to blame for it.

Never, however, do Fincher or Sorkin address whether Facebook is a good thing or not. That it has a market cap of around $25 billion, that it has around 500 million users, that is unquestionably a good thing to the filmmakers. At the movies, as in the tech world, it's all about scalability--more tickets, more users, building from a single idea (say, a comic book hero) into a giant franchise. One wonders if these talented over-40 filmmakers actually use Facebook. In a very perceptive New York Times business story, David Carr points to the generational divide in how the film is being received (excellent reviews, not a box office smash). The oldsters mostly disapprove of Zuckerberg the movie protagonist, while the young see him as admirable, a striver. And most newspaper critics are older, too, not Facebook's prime demographic. Younger moviegoers may not be so avid to see a supposedly tragic tale of ambition and betrayal when they could be at home, you know, on Facebook.

The movie is less concerned with technology than people; and it leaves it to the viewer to appraise Zuckerberg, his friends, and his rivals. To me (and clearly to Fincher and Sorkin as well), there's an essential pathos to Zuckerberg typing alone. He'd be better off in a room full of people, or in a proper restaurant, sharing a meal with friends. And if the filmmakers are unwilling to state it (lest they offend potential moviegoers), I will: Facebook diminishes society, isolates people, detracts from the civility we gain from actual, awkward personal encounters (rejection included). But most of the tables are too small at Chipotle for that, and most patrons dine alone (unless you count an iPhone as a companion, which many undoubtedly do). And the food comes in baskets, not on plates; and the cheap plastic utensils can barely slice through a burrito. Most diners are forced to eat with their hands--another insult to manners and polite society.

But yes, there's a Chipotle in Palo Alto, where Facebook has its headquarters. And yes, Chipotle has a Facebook page.

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