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At movie theaters across the country today, "The Social Network" is opening. It played at the New York Film Festival a week ago. That was the day that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave the Newark, New Jersey school system $100 million. Speculation had it that he was trying to burnish his reputation before the movie tarnished it.

Today, our critic Bob Mondello says let the tarnishing begin.

BOB MONDELLO: The story of how Facebook was invented, almost accidentally in a Harvard dorm room, should have been near-impossible to film: computer geeks, code-writing, legal depositions. But boy does it click along, from the moment actor Jesse Eisenberg's cold-eyed, awkward boy genius decides to get back at a girlfriend who dumps him during the opening credits.

Zuckerberg's revenge? He hacks some school photo archives and enlists his best buddy in a dumb, sexist online stunt.

(Soundbite of film, "The Social Network")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) We're ranking girls.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) You mean other students?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Do you think this is such a good idea?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) I need the algorithm.

MONDELLO: He gets it.

(Soundbite of film, "The Social Network")

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) (Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: Their hot-or-not prank gets so many hits, it crashes Harvard's server, and the dweebs are briefly campus celebs. Mark's still obnoxious, though, and devious. When he's approached to work on a socializing website for a couple of golden-boy jocks, he stalls and tries to develop one of his own.

But it's all just names and pictures until a roommate comes to him one day with a question.

(Soundbite of film, "The Social Network")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Mark, there is a girl in your art history class. Her name is Stephanie Addis(ph). Do you happen to know if she has a boyfriend? And if not, do you happen to know if she's looking to go out with anyone?

Mr. Jesse Eisenberg (Actor): (As Mark Zuckerberg) People don't walk around with a sign on them that says...

MONDELLO: ...their relationship status. Bingo.

Mark is out the door so fast, he doesn't even realize it snowed until his socks and sandals are ankle deep in the stuff. It's a throwaway moment, but the kind that says worlds about the character's mindset.

When people talk about mesmerizing speakers, they often say they'd be happy to listen to them reciting the phone book. Let me just say I'd be happy to watch David Fincher directing the phone book.

With Aaron Sorkin providing the verbal fireworks, Fincher tags and pokes his way through an almost Shakespearean thicket of betrayals and double-crosses. You expect a Facebook movie to be about friending? Think again, as Zuckerberg's co-founder, who is given an almost visible conscience by Andrew Garfield, spars with Napster's creator, played as a snake in the digital grass by Justin Timberlake.

Both of them think the cold fish whose approval they're fighting over actually gives a damn. But his thoughts are ever elsewhere, and sooner or later, almost everyone who meets him can't stand him, perhaps especially the Winklevoss twins, the jocks who originally asked him to work on their campus-socializing site.

(Soundbite of film, "The Social Network")

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) That was your father's lawyer?

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) It was his in-house counsel. He's going to look at all this, and if he thinks it's appropriate, he'll send a cease and desist letter.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) What's that going to do?

Unidentified Man #5: (As character) What, do you want to hire an IP lawyer and sue him?

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) No, I want to hire the Sopranos to beat the (BEEP) out of him with a hammer.

Unidentified Man #5: (As character) We don't even have to that. That's right. We can do that ourselves. I'm 6'5", 220, and there's two of me.

MONDELLO: Though the film conforms to the general contours of the public record, which in this case means the court record, there's a good deal of fictionalizing going on in "The Social Network."

Just as an example, that girlfriend dumping Mark in the opening to start things rolling? Made up. The real Zuckerberg and his fellow gazillionaires wouldn't talk to director David Fincher and his team, probably a good thing for the filmmakers, as it frees them to invent character traits and motivations, less good for the gazillionaires, even if they can afford to buy respectability back. But, hey, that's entertainment, right?

And "The Social Network" is terrific entertainment, an unlikely thriller that makes business ethics, class distinctions and intellectual-property arguments sexy, that zips through two hours quicker than you can say relationship status and that'll likely fascinate pretty much anyone not named Zuckerberg.

Oh, and it sends you out of the theater buzzing, breathless and eager to tell all of your friends, and friended friends, that you've just seen what might end up being the best picture of the year.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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