Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco
3 (out of 5) Globes
It sounds like a get-off-my-lawn bellow, delivered by an old: In “Nerve,” there’s this smartphone game all the kids love, and it’s more annoying than Pokemon Go. (After “The Angry Birds Movie,” this is the second app film of 2016.) In it, players try to perform a series of increasingly crazy dares. They start off mischievous, playful: eat dog food on the sly in a bodega; ride a skateboard holding onto the back of a cop car; sing Roy Orbison in a diner. Then they escalate to real danger. Even at its most deadly, legions of followers watch in giddy disbelief at their screens, egging on participants, demanding a night of wild entertainment.
This could be a grim state of affairs, a treatise on How We Live Now. Thing is, “Nerve” does have a lot to say about how tech has changed us. It just couches its insights in an intoxicating, whiz-bang thriller that shows the dark and fun sides of social media gameplay. Emma Roberts is Vee, a mousy high schooler who decides to prove she can be bold by signing up for this new viral sensation. Suddenly she finds herself kissing a stranger. He’s Ian (Dave Franco), who unbeknownst to her is also playing the game. The two wind up partnered up, carousing about Manhattan while attempting the same dares, quickly becoming social media sensations. Gradually it becomes apparent the secret cabal that controls Nerve may be more like the company from David Fincher’s “The Game," and they might have sinister motives.
As it happens, the directors are technically millennials. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, aka the “Catfish” guys, design their film to appeal to ADD-addled viewers. As in “Catfish,” they’re eager to blend the real world with the viral. They pepper their images with smartphone pop-ups: distracting notifications, scrolling comments, neon lines indicating which players are where in the city. “Nerve” moves fast and is, for awhile at least, elegantly plotted. Always quick to flash that dopey Dave Franco smile, Ian seems affable and charming, but soon we’re teased with a secret backstory that may be less than honorable. It’s a trick nicked from “Charade,” Stanley Donen’s ace 1965 Hitchcock knock-off, where viewers were made to ping-pong back and forth about whether to trust the mystery man played by Cary Grant.
“Nerve” seems too good to be true, and it is, sort of. After a dynamite first two acts, the third bites off more than it can chew. The plotting gets sloppy, the revelations about Nerve prove incoherent, its portrait of unlocked feral human nature turn too bleak. (Or maybe it’s right on; this is a brave new world in which a black celebrity can still be pelted with racist tweets.)
It still understands, deep in its bones, how the anonymity of social media activates our worst and most base instincts, and not just if you’re a kid. Some of its sharper insights are deceptively minor. Even before the fun begins, the very nice Vee casually mentions that she’s “stalking” the boy that she likes online, as though the term is no longer considered skeezy if it’s done over the Internet. It’s not so much a kids-these-days warning than a movie that gets that this is how things are now. It's not smart enough to avoid collapsing into stupidity, but it is smart enough to show off its smarts entertainingly.