Stupidity Sells: "Nerve" sublimely loopy fun before going off the rails

Nerve (2016)
96 min., rated PG-13.

Kids, the Interwebs is a dangerous place. With Instagram, Snapchat and now Pokémon GO trending, “Nerve” is a nifty millennial cyber-thriller about a social-media fad that’s not completely implausible. The title is the same as a trendy fictional app that plays like an online game of “truth or dare,” minus the “truth,” where the user can choose to either be a “watcher” or a “player.” After the player completes a dare, he or she gets paid a large sum of money deposited directly to their account. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (2012’s “Paranormal Activity 4”) and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (TV’s “American Horror Story”), adapting Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel, preach about online anonymity—remember their 2010 pseudo-documentary “Catfish”?—and the dangers of being on either side of a game where lives are treated as expendable, but engage their cautionary tale with such a buzzy charge that one cannot write off this slick, sublimely loopy diversion even when it nearly short-circuits in the final level.

Timid, responsible Staten Island high school senior Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) has lived her life without taking many risks. She has applied to the California Institute of the Arts for photography but cannot bring herself to tell her mother (Juliette Lewis), who wants her daughter close to home after the death of Vee’s older brother. Vee’s extroverted best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is more of an adrenaline junkie and introduces her to Nerve on her phone. After being humiliated by Sydney, Vee decides to give Nerve a shot and accepts her first dare as a “player.” When she’s challenged to kiss a stranger at a diner, that stranger turns out to be a player named Ian (Dave Franco). The watchers like Vee and Ian as a team, but as they make their way into Manhattan and instantly receive online fame, the dares become increasingly more life-threatening. Can Vee trust Ian? Are the prices of the dares really worth the consequences?

Not too disparate from 1997’s “The Game,” 2012’s “Would You Rather,” 2013’s “Cheap Thrills” and 2014’s “13 Sins,” “Nerve” is ludicrously fun before it becomes just ludicrous. The solid premise comes with a dose of cultural relevance where the technology-run world hides behind impersonal phone screens and the watchers logged into Nerve can’t get enough of Vee and Ian going through with a parade of escalating dares. The rules of the underground game are efficiently explained, including the reason why Vee cannot snitch to the police. Then, when it comes time to properly wrap up the loose ends—and make a socially conscious point—the film starts to fall apart a bit in a sub-“Hunger Games” showdown that lacks punch but not heavy-handed moralizing. As what can sometimes happen after a big mystery is revealed, the vague answers just don’t live up to everything that came before.

25-year-old Emma Roberts is still able to convince as a 17-year-old, and as Vee, she is a likable heroine who’s still believably game in risking her safety for monetary gain that will help her mother. There are certain nice character details that break Vee from being a wallflower that would seem overly constructed from high-school movie clichés (i.e. she doesn't wear glasses and she's a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan). Once Roberts and Dave Franco pair up, they make an attractive couple together, the camera eating them up. Ian’s motivations are intentionally kept a mystery, but Franco juggles being seductive and untrustworthy with his charisma and devilish grin. Of the supporting cast, Emily Meade (2016's "Money Monster") is entertainingly loose as Vee’s adventurous but insecure best friend Sydney, an avid “Nerve” player who just wants to be “insta-famous,” and Miles Heizer (2015’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) is endearing as Tommy, Vee’s virtual Duckie. Juliette Lewis is also always a sight for sore eyes, even if her participation in the story as Vee’s mother is limited.

“Nerve” is exciting and unpredictable for a long time, amplified by some truly hair-raising and credibly staged stunts, not to mention the way cinematographer Michael Simmonds stylishly shoots New York City in a neon glow as an anything-can-happen playground. From something as amusing as the Nerve players slipping out of an expensive couture store in their skivvies to hanging from a crane atop of a skyscraper, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman know what they’re doing, skillfully stacking up the danger. Vee forced to be Ian’s eyes on a blindfolded motorcycle ride through traffic at 60 mph is a thrill. Watchers in the actual audience who have a fear of heights will be stressed out when someone crosses a ladder between 10-story apartment windows, and a dare on the train tracks is also genuinely hairy. Taken strictly on its own merits, “Nerve” works well as a silly, swiftly paced escapist entertainment that will garner enough followers to ride vicariously with its players.

Grade: B -