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Game Over

Emma Roberts
Emma Roberts
 96 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco

At a time when seemingly millions of people are willing to do incredibly stupid things to play Pokemon Go, while others risk life, limb, and reputation on a weekly basis on one reality show after another, the basic premise behind the new thriller, Nerve, isn’t that hard to accept. And kudos should deservedly go to writer Jeanne Ryan, who came up with the idea first in a 2012 YA novel that sounded an appropriate cautionary note for high schoolers already obsessed with their online status. But reel world isn’t the book world, and it most certainly isn’t the real world either, and Nerve suffers considerably in the course of its translation the printed page to the silver screen.


Nerve is actually the name of an online game that’s sweeping the nation by storm, although it seems that its creators and participants have somehow been able to keep it under wraps. As one character explains the game, “it’s truth or dare without the truth.” People can participate as either watchers or players. Players do a series of increasingly dangerous stunts, beginning with the mundane (kissing a total stranger in a diner) and working their way up to such fun activities as jumping underneath the wheels of a moving subway train. As they complete each challenge, they win money that’s automatically deposited into their bank accounts. Eventually, if they complete enough challenges, they are voted in by the other group, the watchers, as a champion and get to enjoy the money. But if they “bail” (quit) or “fail” (splat), they lose everything they’ve won.


The other, and presumably much larger, group of participants in the game of Nerve are the watchers. They pay money for the privilege of enjoying the festivities, which, in addition to watching (the game is apparently broadcast by an informal coalition of watchers who record the various stunts on their smartphones), include posting a running commentary on the game and suggesting various challenges for particular players. As a side note, since the game sponsors can apparently force people to keep playing ad infinitum, players seem to have the same chance of actually emerging with a prize as did those who got to play The Running Man, a 1980’s film that, other than the changes in technology and presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, was oddly prescient.


Instead of Schwarzenegger, Nerve stars Emma Roberts as Vee (for Venus) Delmonico, not a stripper working out of a steakhouse, but a shy high school senior looking forward to going to art school and getting away from her controlling mother (Juliette Lewis). Vee is far too embarrassed to ever approach the hunky football player she photographs endlessly for the school newspaper, to the frustration of her best friend, cheerleader Sydney (Emily Meade). The inordinately extroverted Sydney is a player (she flashes her rear end to win an early challenge), and, when Vee gets upset with Sydney, she decides to show the cheerleader that she’s not a total wallflower and plays.


Vee’s first challenge involves kissing Ian (Dave Franco), whom she meets in the diner, and she quickly learns that he’s a  Nerve player too. Their series of dares quickly take them from Staten Island to Manhattan, where they wind up going on a high speed run through the streets on Ian’s motorcycle while he’s wearing a helmet that’s been blacked out so he can’t see. Eventually, Vee’s path leads back to Sydney, who finally gave up on a challenge (crossing between two buildings on a horizontal ladder), a task that Vee soon completes without a moment’s hesitation. Now, Vee and Ian are the game’s hot couple, but it eventually dawns on Vee that this game isn’t very healthy for her or any of the participants.


As a book, Nerve undoubtedly worked well, hitting a nerve with its young audiences’ need for acceptance and ready adoption of anything related to social media, as evidence by the vast numbers of people willing to make YouTube videos of themselves doing stunts at least as inane as some portrayed in the movie. But the movie doesn’t work nearly as well. To begin with, both Emma Roberts and Dave Franco are considerably older than their characters, and, although Franco looks remarkably young for his age (30 when the film was made), they clearly aren’t high schoolers. I also found it impossible to buy Roberts as the sort of girl who is so insecure that she allows herself to get sucked into this game.


In addition, the suspension of disbelief required to accept the game of Nerve is just too much. The vast number of people who have to be precisely in the right spot at the right time and, in addition, are willing to upload the videos of the contestants seems worthy of, well, the CIA. There’s not much difference in the way the CIA keeps tabs on Jason Bourne, in this week’s other major release, and the way the creators of Nerve follow Vee and Ian (aided by some propitious access of all their social media records to determine how best to structure the game to induce them continue playing). And while there are some social media platforms able to do what the creators of Nerve do, it’s hard to picture anyone that sophisticated being satisfied with playing a single on-line game.


Even leaving all the credibility quibbles aside, Vee and Ian never really appealed to me as characters (I realize I’m not in the film’s target demographic) whose fate interested me. To make matters worse, the script boxes itself into such a corner that it can only resolve the climactic dilemma by means of a ridiculous deus ex machina and poor copout ending.


On the other hand, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman know enough about the Internet and social media (they started out with the quasi-documentary, Catfish) to craft a sleek, good-looking film that credibly shows what Nerve might look like if it actually existed. The action scenes are well staged and rather suspenseful (albeit lacking in credibility, as the clip below demonstrates), and, age problems aside, Roberts and Franco make an appealing couple. Seeing how good the movie looks makes the audience wish that the script worked its way through the various potholes a bit better.


Nerve takes on a highly topical subject but never quite manages to get the audience to accept its premise or its lead characters and winds up with one of the most ridiculous endings of the year. For those uninterested in the message or any semblance of credibility, it will prove a passable thriller that looks very good. For the rest of us, it’s just not quite nervy enough.         

In this scene, Emma Roberts and Dave Franco give new meaning to the term "blind date."  

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Nerve (2016) on IMDb