ON LINE DANCING
Main Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
My new musical mash-up, West Side Christmas Story, continues to come together. The producers have found an adorable rising star to play Tony to my Maria. He’s a young man by the name of Charles Busch and he has apparently made quite the name for himself in the New York theater and cabaret world. My sources tell me that he’s the virile leading man type who will make me look my most desirable in our scenes together, especially our intimate love duet, One Hand, One Gun which brings the first act to a close. The producers have nailed down an air date of Sunday, December 17th on one of the finer cable channels of which I had never heard. I must have Leah do some research for me so that I can save it on the DVR for archival purposes. I try to keep copies of all my work in my library. I’m just missing a copy of my early MGM musical spectacular Henry Sweeps Henry, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 in which I played Joan of Arc. So, if any of you lovely people out there in the dark run across a copy, please drop a little note to me at Casa Maine.
Rehearsals are to begin shortly after Thanksgiving in New York which means I’ll be able to take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too for the holiday season. I’m having Madame Rose and her assistant, Peter Lovejoy from my PR firm, look up all sorts of wonderful public appearances I can make while I am there. So far, there’s an offer from Macy’s to appear in one of their holiday windows along with an assortment of products from MNM enterprises’ fine lines of consumer products. The idea is that I would be a living mannequin whose holiday entertaining is so much easier with an assortment of Lesterene makeup, GlamourPuss gowns, and VickiWear active clothing for the woman on the go at my ready disposal. It’s an intriguing idea but I’m not sure I want to dedicate all my free time to living in a display window so I think we’ll have a contractual agreement that I need only be there between two and four PM on Friday afternoons and the rest of the time, we’ll have a series of lovely Vicki Lester impersonators. I’ll have Joseph, my manager, send a talent scout down to Don’t Tell Mama and 54 Below to find some starving artistes who might need a little extra holiday cash.
As it’s been a while since I’ve rattled around the Great White Way, I decided to look up a film that might give a feeling of modern New York life. I yelled up the back stairs to where Normy was closeted in his studio working on a new commission for the National Parks Service; something for the Marine Band to play at Ellis Island, at least it sounds a bit like klezmer music from what I’ve heard drifting down the stair. His suggestion was the film Nerve, a techno-thriller from last summer which I had missed so I located it on one of the streaming services and settled into the home theater for a spell. I must say I am a fan of streaming television and film. It beats having to comb through the library for a misfiled DVD. I once spent hours looking for my copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street only to find it in the Romance section next to Sense and Sensibility but I digress.
Nerve takes place in modern New York. We meet Vee (Emma Roberts), a high school senior from Staten Island who lives with her mother (Juliette Lewis) and yearns to escape to college at the California Institute for the Arts. Her beloved elder brother has recently died unexpectedly and Mom is grieving and the family tragedy has pushed Vee (short for Venus) into a shell. Her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is much more outgoing and outrageous and we soon learn that some of her antics are fueled by her participation in a massive on-line game, the titular Nerve. Nerve is a sort of crowd sourced Truth or Dare with the majority of people watching vicariously while the players must complete daring challenges. As the players complete their dares, they are rewarded monetarily by the mysterious watchers. Sydney flashes her bare bottom at the crowd while cheerleading at the high school ball game and becomes a serious contender for the finals with many more on line fans. This leads ultimately to Vee deciding to become a player herself and soon she finds herself kissing a stranger, Ian (Dave Franco) in a diner and soon after zooming off to Manhattan while perched behind him on his motorcycle. The stakes grow higher after the pair find themselves in their underwear in a major department store. The dares get more dangerous, there are hidden motives on the part of our players and it appears that Vee may cause the financial ruin of her family (the watchers can take funds away as well as reward if their desire to see a dare completed is spurned). I shan’t give away too much other than to say everyone emerges from their experience with the Nerve game wiser than when they began.
The film is based on Jeanne Ryan’s young adult dystopian novel of the same name from some years ago. The film keeps some characters and the basic idea of a dare challenge on-line game with multiple watchers who control the fates of the players but is otherwise quite different in terms of tone and general plot line. Ryan’s novel is a dark cautionary tale of the problems that the mob mentality of internet communities can create. The film is a much more straightforward adventure thriller. Some of the cautionary themes remain and this makes the film suitable for teens and for their parents to bring up discussion of peer pressure, the recognition of how good people can slowly slide into poor ethical choices and the dangers of anonymity in communication. These ideas, although not always dramatized in the most interesting ways, give the film some punch and relevance to today’s young audience.
The biggest flaw in the film, and it has plagued every film that has used the internet or on-line communication as a major plot device for the last quarter century, is how to make a bunch of people sitting around typing on keyboards or phones visually interesting. We’ve had corny graphics (The Net with Sandra Bullock), digital avatars (Disclosure with Michael Douglas), and lots of cute little text boxes and emojis (more films than I care to count). None of these truly capture the world of imagination and interior life that on-line living actually creates. Perhaps Spielberg will finally solve this conundrum in the upcoming Ready Player One but I am not hopeful. In this film, the watchers appear as little screen names in various colors with GPS type coordinates showing where they are in a cityscape and we see texts and things as sidebars and subtitles to the action on screen. I suppose it’s about as good as we’re going to get but at times it’s distracting and visually cluttered.
Nerve is team directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman who have been working together as film directors for a few years. They cut their teeth on the Paranormal Activity franchise and have moved on to such titles as Mega Man, an adaptation of a Japanese anime/video game character. They have a good handle on pacing and building suspense and they give the whole New York City at night a neon sheen that reminds me of early Michael Mann. Hopefully, they’ll be handed better material at some point. They get reasonable performances out of their young cast. Emma Roberts, as Vee, who has generally built her career around her resemblance to her famous aunt, gives us a heroine whom we care something about. She has a nice combination of bravura and insecurity. The script requires her to make a couple of psychological shifts with minimal motivation but she manages to paper over the cracks. Dave Franco, as the male lead, also has an uncanny resemblance to his more famous brother which the film exploits. He’s inoffensive. I was expecting some more nepotism casting after meeting these two and was disappointed not to spot DeeDee Pfeiffer, Don Swayze or Jim Belushi. Juliette Lewis, now definitely in the mom age group, does some fine work in her few scenes but really isn’t given much to do.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Nerve, admired some of its messages (and plan to watch it again with my adolescent nieces at some point) but don’t feel that it’s the film that’s going to make society sit up and take notice of the dangers inherent in anonymous on line social connection.
Ladder balancing. Best friend battle. Lighthouse tattoo. Gratuitous diner musical number. Blindfold dare. Train track lying. Code cracking. Screen name unmasking.