“Nerve” wants to be an action film. It also wants to be a romance, indictment for the ills of society and a postcard from New York. In an effort to do so much, nothing really takes complete shape.
Vee (Emma Roberts) is a mild-mannered high school senior who doesn’t even have the nerve to tell her mother she wants to move across country to go to college. She’s the opposite of her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), who’s such a daredevil she has signed up to play the online game of Nerve.
Sydney, who is climbing the leader board, goads Vee into signing up to play. This sends Vee on a series of challenges that hook her up with fellow player, Ian (Dave Franco). Their chemistry is so good, the pair move quickly to the top of the standings.
What starts as harmless dares – like kissing a stranger – escalate into deadly situations. The only hope is to keep playing and win the game.
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The competition, which has players systematically eliminated, would make “Nerve” similar to “The Hunger Games” if all the contestants had cell phones. Both stories feature players who go against their better judgment to be part of the games, will do anything to protect loved ones and must deal with a no-win scenario at the end.
The big difference is that “Nerve’s” Roberts doesn’t come close to having the moxie that made Jennifer Lawrence so memorable in the “Hunger Games.” Roberts neither comes across as a shrinking violet nor a adrenalin-charged player.
Meade’s character is far more interesting, from her reasons for taking on the dares to dealing with her biggest fear.
Roberts’ weaknesses are the most pronounced in a huge speech where Vee chides those watching the game for not having the nerve to reveal who they are. Her verbal assault about how they feel brave hidden behind what they think is the invisible wall of anonymity resonates in the real world, but the way Roberts delivers it is more of an automated speech and not the passionate cry to the masses to make a change.
Odds are those who need to hear the message the most will have their faces buried in their cell phones anyway.
Franco doesn’t provide much help. His connection to Vee looks forced. He never comes across as enough of a bad boy to take all the dares needed to win the contest.
This leaves the dares as the selling point of the movie. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have a plodding pace, which creates little tension over whether the task will be accomplished. To work best, “Nerve” needed to be a rapid-fire series of dares. There are way too many places to catch your breath in “Nerve.”
Even the big battle between the people behind Nerve and some good hackers isn’t set up or played out with any energy. It’s just a predictable way to get out of the film’s central dilemma.
Buried under a slow pacing and so-so performances is a film that wants to be socially relevant. As is, the film is little more than a cell phone with a nearly dead battery. You enjoy it as much as you can before it dies.
“Nerve” has its problems, but its timing couldn’t be any better. The screenplay by Sharzer based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan suggest that our obsession with cell phones and online games have reached an epidemic level. The movie hits theaters at the same time millions are wandering around the streets trying to catch “Pokemon Go” characters. The makers of this movie have some “Nerve.”
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffries.
Director: Henry Jost, Ariel Schulman
Rating: PG-13 (language, brief nudity, drinking, action scenes)
Opens: Wednesday, July 27