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the star market

The Star Market: Jesse Eisenberg Is the Nerd King of The Social Network, But What’s His Value in Hollywood?

At this point, the spotlight on The Social Network couldn't be any brighter. The hype is deafening, the critics are in love — except for serial dissenter Armond White, of course — and the movie may even cure cancer (has anybody checked)? It isn't just that the movie is expected to earn a relatively healthy box-office take this weekend and collect many awards in the months to come — there's also a "star is born" aura over the entire young cast, which has already spawned both a superhero and a Salander. Boy, lead actor Jesse Eisenberg (who's earning Oscar buzz for his performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) must be having the time of his life, right?

Not quite. "This is just the way my mind works, which is why I go to therapy twice a week — I immediately think that there could be nothing worse than getting that kind of attention," he told the L.A. Times. And there you have Eisenberg in a nutshell: Rightfully acclaimed for his tightly wound performances in indie movies, he's just as neurotically fearful of the incipient stardom that could be coming. After nerdy star turns in Zombieland and The Social Network, studios may try to make Eisenberg the next Michael Cera, but is that something he really wants? (Is it something anybody wants?) We spoke to industry insiders to figure out what he should do next and to answer the question: If Jesse Eisenberg were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Eisenberg got his screen start at age 15 as the lead on the short-lived 1999 Fox dramedy Get Real (he played brother to a similarly unknown Anne Hathaway), and two subsequent films put him on the map: 2002's Roger Dodger, where he won good notices as Campbell Scott's impressionable nephew, and, most crucially, the 2005 Noah Baumbach insta-classic The Squid and the Whale. In the wake of that breakout, Eisenberg made several under-the-radar indies like The Education of Charlie Banks and Holy Rollers, but the one-two-three punch of Adventureland, Zombieland, and The Social Network has now raised his profile significantly.

Peers: As an unconventional leading man with geek appeal, Eisenberg isn't quite as established or studio-friendly as Shia LaBeouf, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or Cera, but he's quickly gaining and an Oscar nod for The Social Network would help close the gap. (At the same time, Cera could serve as a cautionary tale: Both he and Eisenberg play similarly nerdy know-it-alls, but the audience has burned out on the overexposed Scott Pilgrim star, figuring him to be a one-trick pony.) Right now, the industry insiders we spoke to placed Eisenberg in the same class as actors Emile Hirsch and Paul Dano, but one rung ahead of nerdy leads like Michael Angarano and Jay Baruchel.

Market Value: Aside from a small role in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, Eisenberg hadn't been in a movie that broke $20 million until he made Zombieland. His rare forays into studio work have mostly underperformed, like the 2005 Wes Craven horror comedy Cursed and 2007's The Hunting Party, where even co-stars like Richard Gere and Terrence Howard couldn't get the box office past six figures. And Zombieland's success (the stealth sleeper grossed $75 million) didn't do anything to help his subsequent micro-budget movies Holy Rollers and The Living Wake, which both did brutal business.

With all that said, Zombieland did give Eisenberg his first box-office bargaining chip: He's a cinch to return for Sony's in-the-works sequel. Now that he's toplining an honest-to-goodness franchise, studios have gotten curious, but while $2 million offers are piling up for films, Eisenberg has yet to say yes to any of them. In the meantime, he's keeping it in the Sony family: After toplining its Social Network (for which he made $400,000), the studio reunited him with Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer for the action comedy 30 Minutes or Less, where Eisenberg stars opposite Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride.

What Hollywood Thinks: "I feel like he should be a little bigger than he is — and I don't mean that as a knock," said one publicist we spoke to. "[The Social Network] should get him better known in middle America." A top agent agrees: "I think this movie is going to work, and he'll be in that 'next place.' He could be a Dustin Hoffman–type career: does comedy, but also good with drama. I don't think he's going to be Brad Pitt, but he'll be in that elite echelon of actors."

When putting together a studio movie, would Eisenberg's neurotic persona lend itself better to a quirky supporting character or the romantic lead? Nowadays, says the agent, there isn't much difference between the two. "Is he a leading man? Well, a leading man the way Sean Penn is 'leading man'? Sure. A leading man who gets the girl? Hmmm. In the right scenario, he gets the girl, absolutely. He's not George Clooney, and never will be, but nowadays, I think a lot of the movies being made, especially the interesting ones, aren't written for the prototypical good-looking leading male. On the comedy side, that's definitely the case."
 
"Joe Gordon-Levitt isn't the best-looking guy, but it didn't hurt (500) Days of Summer," the agent continues. "Paul Rudd is probably the best-looking guy in comedy, but I don't think even he is known for his looks. Even the stuff Brad Pitt is doing lately, is interesting, character-y kind of roles. We've had these discussions within the agency, and I don't know if it matters so much. It does for certain things, but everything is changing; people want to see actors that they can identify with — especially younger people."

The Analysis: Most moviegoers may not have known who Jesse Eisenberg was until they saw him dodging zombies last year, but he's already well-respected by his industry peers. Modest but fiercely intelligent (he created the website One Up Me, a "daily wordplay game of similes that fosters abstract and creative thought"), Eisenberg is seen as the sort of actor who's more interested in making quality films than drawing a huge paycheck.

That said, one publicist we spoke to thinks that if the socially reticent Eisenberg really wants to move to the upper tier of roles, he'll have to open up: "He needs to be doing things that connect the dots a little more. Young people know him; the industry know him. It's time for our parents to know his name. [He should be] doing Leno, People magazine, things that might feel a little cheesy to him ... not just because they put butts in seats, but to educate. If I asked my mom who the star of Social Network is, she'd probably say Justin Timberlake, not realizing that it's this kid."
 
Then again, does Eisenberg want to be a huge celebrity? So far, his high-profile movies have all been quirky or challenging curveballs, and the introverted Eisenberg doesn't have the right personality to become a brand-name celebrity. There's slim chance that his dating life will be as scrutinized as LaBeouf's, and though no one cares who Cera is going out with, he draws plenty of headlines from deadpan performance-art stunts. No, Eisenberg will have to be known as an actor alone — the question is whether he'll let Hollywood coax him into being a bigger one.

According to one manager, the actor's next move after The Social Network opens ought to telegraph his intentions. "He's got a big opportunity here; maybe he'll get nominated for an Oscar. But the biggest mistake people make is feeling like they have to do only the super significant artsy roles and lose vision of the commerce. You don't just jump on some Marvel movie that Joe Blow is going to direct because he was the cool music-video director last year, but you should go for balance. If his goal is to rule the world and be the biggest movie star out there, he'll jump into the sequel to Wanted and I wouldn't fault him for it, but it's also possible he just wants to do good work and couldn't care less about the fame."

The Bottom Line: At this point, Eisenberg's name (if you know it at all) is better associated with quality than box office, but with a solid lineup of upcoming films like The Social Network, 30 Minutes or Less and Zombieland 2, that could change in a hurry. As long as Eisenberg doesn't pull a Cera and start taking groan-worthy cash-grabs like Year One, moviegoers could start to see him as studio executives already do: as an additive seal of quality to any picture.

He's also got the dramatic chops for whatever will come after he inevitably grows out of his "neurotic young man" phase, says one manager: "Remember when Heath Ledger was cast in [Fox Broadcasting Company's 1997 summer replacement drama] Roar? Heath was a little awkward: skinny and bad hair. But he had this booming voice and presence, and grew into himself. So, Jesse's young: When he grows up, maybe puts on some weight, gets a little groomed — who knows?"

Buy/Sell/Hold: Buy now. Eisenberg may never be a high-return stock, but at least he's got consistency and quality in his favor.

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images