Movie Review: ‘NERVE’ is so bad, it’s good

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

NERVE | 1h 36min | PG-13
Directed by: Henry JoostAriel Schulman
Starring: Emma RobertsDave FrancoEmily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jefferies, Machine Gun Kelly, Samira Wiley

What ever happened to teenage party games like “spin the bottle,” “truth or dare” and “seven minutes in heaven?” Have they gone the way of the dinosaur, aging out of the zeitgeist because they are no longer extreme enough for the younger generation? I guess thanks to JACKASS, YouTube and any other social media platform, today’s kids need entertainment reflective of the times. NERVE is demonstrative of this; however, it plays more as a survival-of-the-fittest lesson – a Darwinism-fueled cautionary tale for the GoPro generation.

Shy, smart, straight-laced Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) has always lived her life by the book. She’s taken a more passive role in life, photographing the action instead of participating in it. Her worrisome mom (Juliette Lewis, because Judy Greer already filled this role in Summer ‘15) and the death of her older brother are further contributing factors, impeding her from living her best life. And she’s aching to do something exciting for once. The chance presents itself when her bestie/ trust fund brat Sydney (Emily Meade) tells her about Nerve, a new online game sweeping the nation,  which prompts players to participate in boundary-pushing stunts – anything from the innocent (mooning crowds, singing in public, kissing strangers), to the more hardcore (dangling off a crane, lying on train tracks and walking across a suspended ladder bridge). For each stunt you do, you win money. The bigger the risk, the greater the reward. Determined to no longer live life on the sidelines, Vee answers the call as a “player” and in no time flat, she’s amounted a fleet of fans – or “watchers” – who’ve hooked her up with some sweet threads and a partner in crime, Ian (Dave Franco). But there’s a dark side to all these shenanigans – one Vee begins to discover.

Dave Franco and Emma Roberts in NERVE. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Dave Franco and Emma Roberts in NERVE. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

NERVE is one of those “so-bad-it’s-good” movies. It’s utterly ridiculous, insanely mockable and yet easily re-watchable for all of those same reasons. Outside of its well-intentioned notions, there’s a lot of things going for it as well working against it; if you overthink the plot, it becomes a rabbit hole of hours wasted from your day. The soundtrack, filled with ethereal alternative electro-pop, voices Vee’s inner monologue, but is totally obtrusive and on the nose. Roberts, who sports janky/ noticeably distracting hair extensions throughout the film, raps Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” while getting a tattoo inspired by a Virginia Woolf novel (I assume because Sylvia Plath would have been too morose). Her green sparkle disco dress is an emerald city unto itself, an MVP stoking “Dorothy in Oz” feelings. Vee’s guy pals – friend-zoned Tommy (Miles Heizer), who watches his cellphone while he is driving, and Wes (Marc John Jefferies) – can’t parallel park for shit and it’s never addressed. Tommy knows a hacker (Samira Wiley) who rolls on the dark web. A hospital patient says, “white people problems.” The snooty clerks at Bergdorf Goodman shaming Vee is on par with PRETTY WOMAN. Comments that pop up on screen during Vee’s changing room sequence provide the film’s most genuine laughs. While adorable sprite Roberts and perpetually Cheshire-cat grinned Franco are kinda cute separately, together, they have no sizzling chemistry – and yet it still works, at least on a teen fairytale level. Plus, Vee sells out Syd faster than you can say “betrayal” and they make up faster than you can abbreviate “Best Friends Forever.”

Though it may seem the “watchers” are the more passive people involved with the game/ social experiment, it becomes glaringly obvious early in act one that they hold all the power. They’re the ones the remaining players will need to outsmart in order to survive. The only mystery here is specifically how these players – you can probably guess who those will be – will do it. Needless to say, that’s not enough gasoline in the narrative’s engine. Its “takedown” of those with keyboard courage isn’t eloquent enough to change anyone’s minds or hearts when trolling in real life, which is unfortunate, given this was the filmmakers’ opportunity. The climax devolves into abject stupidity, bordering on camp: Is the final round held at a hoodie convention? Is Vee’s cherry-red hoodie a FLATLINERS reference? Did Tommy’s unrequited love for Vee attain any sense of closure? How did mom figure out where Vee’s friends were? What exactly were the motives of man-bunned “Mad Max” extra Ty (Colson Baker, a.k.a. “Machine Gun Kelly,” because Johnny Weston was busy)? Because those change purely due to contrived and unexplained reasons.

NERVE may not be on the level of such guilty pleasure classics as SHOWGIRLS and ABDUCTION, but possibly in a few short years it could be.

NERVE opens on July 27.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.