Friday, August 12, 2016

Nerve: Gotta Catch 'Em All, Your Life's on the Line

Kimiko Glenn, Emma Roberts, and Miles Heizer in "Nerve"
The teenagers in Nerve are slaves to their smartphones, blindly following their devices' directions even when they appear to be leading them toward certain death. This makes Nerve a very silly movie, though perhaps not as silly as it would have seemed a month ago. The recent Pokémon Go craze—in which people fixated on their Androids have stumbled into robberies, corpses, and murder—lends Nerve more than a whiff of topical relevance. What could have been a stupid and implausible dystopian thriller now becomes something resembling a cautionary tale, a didactic fable that concerned friends can relay to their Pikachu-obsessed peers. Unfortunately, while it's less implausible than it might have been, it's still pretty stupid.

Which doesn't mean that it can't be fun. Directed with style and snap by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, Nerve is a big-screen experience that takes great heed to remind us how tethered we are to our pocket-sized monitors. Using a variety of flashy tracks—frequent POV shots, distorted camera angles, translucent screens, text running through images both horizontally and vertically—Schulman and Joost keep your eyes busy, soaking the frame in a neon-drenched aesthetic that recalls Spring Breakers. From the outset, Nerve doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and its narrative only deteriorates as it goes along, but it's consistently eye-catching.

That wobbly narrative centers around Vee (Emma Roberts, passably playing a high schooler at age 25), an honor student and aspiring photographer who's afraid to confirm her recent acceptance to CalArts because she's worried that moving across the country would shatter her single mother (Juliette Lewis, apparently in need of a paycheck). Everyone in Nerve corresponds to a type, and you know Vee's: She's the sweet-but-shy girl, the one who's secretly pretty but is nevertheless terrified of approaching the jock whom she silently pines for. This makes her the polar opposite of Sydney (Emily Meade, from The Leftovers and Money Monster), Vee's outgoing best friend, whose promiscuity masks her insecurity. Although they're pals, they occupy different levels of social strata, a division that's reinforced early on when, after Vee fails to break out of her shell, Sydney taunts her, "You're a watcher, not a player."

Her choice of terminology is not merely metaphorical. "Watchers" and "players" make up the two demographics of this trendy new game called Nerve, which describes itself as "truth or dare, minus the truth." As the game tells it—in one of those creepily robotic monotones that make it immediately untrustworthy—Nerve awards prizes to players who record themselves on their phones performing particular dares that are assigned to them by watchers, who pay for the privilege. Essentially, the watchers act as a hive mind, bending the players to their will; for their part, the players are seduced by the promise of cold hard cash, which the game instantly deposits into their bank account upon successful completion of each dare. That sounds innocuous enough, but apparently the players are all competing against one another in a winner-take-all tournament; if you fail to execute your designated dare, you're eliminated and lose all of your previously earned money. Oh, and there's something about how "snitches get stitches", but I'm sure that won't come up later in the movie. It certainly doesn't concern Vee, who—stung by Sydney's comment about her meekness—runs home and signs up as player.

Hey lady, want a ride? What's the worst that could happen?
As a viewer who tends to suspend his disbelief quite easily, even I could poke holes into the plot of Nerve for hours—who runs the tournament? How do the disparate watchers agree on a particular dare? Can you only play if you live in New York City? Are there ever buffering problems? Does every smartphone now come with an unlimited battery supply?—but there's little point in that. Nerve's ludicrous setup is just an excuse for Schulman and Joost to take us on an adrenaline ride, as they put Vee through a series of dares that grow increasingly outrageous and risqué but never compromise the film's PG-13 rating. To spice things up with a charge of romance, she finds herself flung together with Ian (Dave Franco, rocking a buzz cut and a six-pack), a motorbike-riding bad boy and fellow Nerve player who, to Vee, represents the tantalizing prospect of adventure. Together, they venture from Staten Island to downtown Manhattan, thousands of watchers tracking their every move. (Two of them include Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley, a happy accident for fans of Orange Is the New Black.)

For all its absurdity, Nerve supplies a healthy amount of fun, until it doesn't. A sequence in a posh department store strikes the right balance between exciting and goofy, while a scene where Ian must ride his motorcycle while blindfolded is gleefully ridiculous. But at the film's rough midpoint, it takes an ill-advised turn toward darkness, as the seemingly harmless game transforms into a life-or-death competition, not to mention a shrill commentary on human cruelty.

Whatever you do, don't lose your phone
The notion that consumers of mass media will happily pay to watch their fellow citizens suffer is hardly novel; from The Running Man to Death Race, Hollywood has been putting new spins on age-old gladiatorial combat for decades. Nerve generates some kick from its particular focus on technology, and the Pokémon boom lends credence to the unsettling thought that the movie's augmented reality may not be all that far divorced from our own. But there is something uniquely ugly about Nerve's jaundiced view of human nature, a callousness that is doubtless designed to be provocative but really comes off as just plain gross.

This is disappointing, but it probably shouldn't come as a surprise. Schulman and Joost's first feature was Catfish, the loathsome "documentary" that inexplicably spawned a meme, a television series, and the Manti Te'o scandal. That film posited, with revolting superiority, that people could never trust one another, and that social media has amplified our predilections for selfishness and spite. And Nerve is similarly noxious in its depiction of iPhone-addicted teens who cavalierly demand that people they've never met must steal firearms, duck under moving trains, and hang from construction cranes. Again, this casual viciousness is supposed to engender both revulsion (the horror!) and self-reflection (I'm horrible!), but Schulman and Joost lack the discipline and intelligence to articulate their thesis with any fluency. As with their characters, they just like making people do dumb things. Some may call that entertainment, but this watcher is logging out.

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