Movie review: ‘Nerve’ isn’t quite nerve-racking enough
Despite the fact that it fizzles out at the end when it should have exploded, despite the multitude of story threads that hint at something deeper but go nowhere, “Nerve” pulls a lot of right strings and pushes a lot of right buttons. It’s a taut and jangling minor thriller, and for at least its first three quarters, it works well as a communal bit of fun for a packed movie audience.
Jeanne Ryan was probably trying to think of ways to skewer the reality TV craze with her 2012 novel, on which the film is based, but it’s more likely the Pokemon Go crowd that’s going to lap up the movie.
Good girl Vee (Emma Roberts) lives with her mom (Juliette Lewis) on Staten Island. She’s a high school senior who, in the opening scene, for no discernible reason, turns down — on a keyboard, with her index finger — her acceptance to CalArts. Then she just stays at the computer, chatting away with friends, checking in on all sorts of unimportant clutter, and casually glancing at an invitation to be either a Player or Watcher in a game of Nerve.
She doesn’t really know what that is, but we soon do: It’s a fast-rising video phenomenon in which Players are anonymously issued dares that can turn out be to embarrassing or dangerous. But if the dares are taken, then completed within a certain time limit, and preserved on video by the Player or an accomplice, a sum of money is deposited in their personal bank accounts. There are also the Watchers, who do just that — they stay glued to their phones and video screens, watching people perform those dares, and are able to make suggestions for follow-up dares. All of that for only $19.99 for a 24-hour period. It’s become a nationwide craze, with scores of Watchers keeping track of a few daredevil Players.
Vee isn’t interested until peer pressure, coming from the shaky “best friend” relationship between her and Sydney (Emily Meade), who’s already addicted, and has earned a large number of followers (Watchers), leads Vee to sign up for her first dare: Go up to a stranger, and kiss him for five seconds. The stranger is Ian (Dave Franco), a guy minding his own business, all alone in a diner. Vee steels herself, does the act, has it caught on camera by her pal Tommy (Miles Heizer), and the words “Dare Complete” flash up on her phone, just before $100 is deposited in her bank account.
The hitch is that Ian wasn’t just an innocent stranger; he’s also a Player, and was told to be there on a dare. Yeah, money appears in his account for sitting there waiting to be kissed ... maybe ... it’s not fully explained. But there’s no time to ponder over such trivialities. More dares pop up for both Vee and Ian, and before you can say Jolteon, they’re on his motorcycle, headed for Manhattan, nervously entering Bergdorf Goodman, where they’ve been dared to try on some expensive outfits.
This is all fun and games for a while, until dark edges start seeping through. There’s quick mention of someone who was killed playing the game in Seattle, along with questions about Ian’s strangely hazy background, and a regular upping of the stakes in each ensuing dare’s danger factor. It becomes a study in addiction, both for the Players, who get bigger money for riskier dares, and for the Watchers, who get their own adrenaline rushes by feeding off of others’ exploits. It gets even darker when the status of Prisoner is added to Player and Watcher.
Some of the film is funny, some is creepy, most of it is too loud and kinetic. All of it is a slam against the notion of people becoming instant social media pop stars.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Jessica Sharzer; directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
With Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade