The new internet thriller ‘Nerve’ has a pretty strong central hook. Given that it’s being released as the death tally for ‘Pokemon Go’ players continues to rise, it couldn’t be more marketably timely.
For a while, ‘Catfish’ co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman even manage to live up to their internet-era filmmaking potential and deliver a goofy thriller that feels special. Sadly, you can pinpoint the exact moment this thing goes off the rails and slides down to just being another irritating Hollywood youthsploitation product. Executed with the nerve (I just may use that pun again, you’ve been warned) to transform this teenybopper adventure into a new ‘Twilight Zone’ cautionary tale, this flick could have become something that folks remember past Monday. Alas, that didn’t happen. Thankfully, ‘Black Mirror’ still exists for those interested in such things.
Emma Roberts stars as Vee, a high school senior so crushed by fear that she can’t even tell her mother (Juliette Lewis, underused) that she wants to go to college across the country. Naturally, she does have a wild friend, though. Emily Meade plays Sydney, the wild child in her life who gets her kicks by playing ‘Nerve’, a new open-source game where players are tasked with increasingly dangerous dares for cash provided by a mass number of anonymous watchers. Against the advice of her requisite overly cautious best friend with a crush (Miles Heizer), Vee decides to join ‘Nerve’ to prove that she’s got some. Her first dare is to kiss a stranger in a neon diner. It’s Dave Franco, so that’s not so bad. Wouldn’t ya know it, he’s a player too and soon they are dared to drive into New York City on his motorcycle to get up to trouble. At first it’s all good fun, but as anyone who has seen this sort of movie before can assume, the watchers are a bloodthirsty group who want dangerous drama to spice up their night of online voyeurism.
All in all, it’s not a bad premise. It touches on fleeting internet fame and trolling and phony digital lives and underground internet obsession and blah, blah, blah… Based on a book Jeanne Ryan, it’s no shock that studios were quick to snap it up and release a movie with sexy young folks doing cinematic things while tied to those cellular telephone thingies that are all the rage these days. The central pairing of Roberts and Franco is strong. They look their (stock) parts and have an easy chemistry that lights up the screen. Joost and Schulman shoot everything through dark shadows, bright streetlights and rapid fire editing to make things seem quick and hip and just a little bit dangerous without ever feeling like less than poppy fun. It’s amusing to watch the meet-cute turn sour over the course of a dangerous game filled with potent subtext that’s either ignored or screamed about at a shrill volume.
The thing about these sort of sci-fi “15 Minutes into the Future” cautionary tales is that the fun is seductive and eventually it must turn dark. Joost and Schulman did that transition well in their excellent documentary ‘Catfish’ and then directed one the best ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies (that would be the third one), so they certainly know how to handle a gearshift and shock/suspense. Unfortunately, the movie gets incredibly muddled around that point. Drama slips into melodrama and everything is overstated. Worst of all (well, aside from the cameos by Machine Gun Kelly and The Fat Jew), this story that must head to a dark place slowly descends into one the silliest, most illogical, and most forced happy endings in a long time. With no familiarity with the source novel, I can’t comment on whether or not this is a faithful adaptation. Either way, it feels like manufactured populism in a movie that doesn’t need it. The cell phone junky young folks that this thriller is made for have more than enough pop and charm to get them into the theater. Switching everything around to a smiling sunrise happy ending feels like pathetic pandering and a waste of a good premise.
Unfortunately, this is one of those movies that loses its nerve (told ya another one was coming) and most of the good will that it earned until that point along the way. That makes it a tough watch for anyone who buys into the big silly ideas and invests in storytellers who seem to have a purpose. While it might make for a more satisfying date movie, it’s not a memorable one that will even be discussed longer than fifteen minutes after the credits roll. Too bad, but these things happen with depressing frequency. ‘Nerve’ could have been a timely summertime sleeper. Instead, it’s just another distraction that shouldn’t live longer than the latest casual click phone game.