Idiocy Reigns Supreme In Absurd Tech Thriller "Nerve"

From the creators of “Catfish” and MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show” comes “Nerve,” a phenomenally stupid techno-thriller that tries to make up for in absurdity what it lacks in everything else. Clarity and tact have gotten the hell out of Dodge, stranding stars Emma Roberts (FOX’s “Scream Queens”) and Dave Franco (“Neighbors”) in a narrative ghost town whose currency is implausibility and where the only television around is playing a loop of David Fincher’s “The Game” (arguably the director’s worst film).

“Nerve” begins not unlike technology-based 2015 horror pic “Unfriended,” with filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman immersing moviegoers in a rush of computer login screens and app executions. Vee (Roberts) is the young woman at the operating system’s helm, jumping from Spotify to a Face Time conversation in which her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) steers her toward an online game called Nerve. The app combines the voyeurism of live streaming with the bad decision making of “Truth or Dare,” less the “truth” part. “Watchers” pay “players” to perform increasingly wild stunts and capture it with their smartphones, from eating canned dog food to mooning a stadium of high school football fans to blindfolded motorcycling. Blindfolded motorcycling! The payouts rise accordingly.

Vee, a quiet photographer but closet adrenaline junkie, takes the opportunity to show Sydney (already a Nerve star) what she’s made of. Unbeknownst to her mom (Juliette Lewis), Vee takes off to a Staten Island diner to kiss a complete stranger. The rub: her target, Ian (Franco), has something of a Nerve history himself, placed in the diner by the watchers themselves. The app’s users have the ability to comb through players’ internet histories and manipulate them into specific actions. It’s far-fetched but a decent enough set-up, making for thirty minutes or so of silly fun, as Vee and Ian pull some low-level shenanigans in an upscale department store.

But by the time our leads get to the aforementioned blindfolded motorcycling – weaving in and out of Manhattan traffic at 60 mph – the thin screenplay stops being endearing and starts wearing. A la the “Purge” series, a high concept premise turns from lightly dumb to lowest common denominator junk, at once trying to comment on the lows to which millennials will sink in debt to their technology addiction while rejoicing in the same boorish behavior. Act III is so ineffably lunkheaded that our protagonists’ turn on a dime from cogs to moralists comes off as its least unlikely element.

Visually the picture is a wash. By turns its neon-drenched color palette is arresting and its directors’ commitment to screwing around with camera lenses entirely distracting. There are no action scenes per se, but the most kinetic of sequences seem to have been edited with a weed-whacker, ruining any marriage of style and momentum intended by the filmmakers. The tension of their breakthrough “Catfish” comes through loud and clear at times, but said tension is just as much a product of Jessica Sharzer’s intermittently inventive screenplay as it is the directors.

Some of the movie’s best moments are afterthoughts (see: a Huffington Post headline that reads “Is James Franco Too Smart?”), all but confirming what so much of the movie suggests: that Joost and Schulman are still very much learning on the job. Similarly, the soundtrack is an uneasy mix of trying too hard and not enough, missing its target audience of teenagers but hitting the quarter-life crisis bullseye. (The use of two tracks from Brooklyn synthpop outfit Holy Ghost! is an exception; they’re terrific.)

The dearth of chemistry between Roberts and Franco is the moldy cherry atop this slush pile. Apart from not looking at all like high schoolers, Franco’s usual appeal is nowhere in sight and Roberts struggles to make her character’s use of technology look at all natural. It doesn’t help that the technology itself doesn’t look natural.

In fact, it’s sure to be laughably dated in a decade or a less, the kind of unfortunate futurism that puts too much stuck into what’s happening now rather than what’s next. With the recent release of Pokemon Go, Jeanne Ryan (author of the novel on which the movie is based) and company deserve some credit for foretelling interactive crowd-based mobile gaming, but it isn’t like this – nor will it ever be. Moreover, the mixed messaging (basking in the same ADHD-based entertainment it’s condemning) should make the whole even less palatable as time marches on. Then again, there’s an outside chance its untethered idiocy eventually finds a cult audience.

Come for a cameo by known plagiarist-comedian Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky, stay for Emma Roberts awkwardly spitting some Wu-Tang Clan lyrics. Then, never think about “Nerve” ever again. Unless the years are especially unkind. Then, dig it out and laugh it up. Everyone wins.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 27, 2016
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenwriter: Jessica Sharzer
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity – all involving teens)