To quote Broken Lizard’s 2001 stoner comedy Super Troopers, “desperation is a stinky cologne,” – and Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery) is absolutely drenched in it. After runing the gamut on Stranger Things from a despicable jock to an affable cool kid, Keery takes a hard left turn in a new techno-horror thriller called Spree as Kurt, aka KurtsWorld96, a pathetic loser who’s thirsty for social media attention. Kurt is a socially awkward outcast with no friends who spends his days trying to build awareness for his brand, Kurt’s World. But his videos barely crack double digits, and even though he’s studied the steps to build a following and follows that the playbook step by step, it’s not clicking. That’s when he comes up with #TheLesson, a live-streamed event from his rideshare vehicle in which he cruises through Los Angeles and kills all of his passengers.
No amount of strategizing can save someone who’s so bad at being an influencer. Some people have natural charisma on camera, and others, like Kurt, simply do not. #TheLesson is a perfect piece of social media satire from writer Gene McHugh and writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko, because it’s nothing more than a branding exercise – just empty platitudes that don’t mean anything. Unfortunately, while the rest of the movie is obviously a satire (Kurt rags on homeless people for not having any social media presence), it just ends up feeling stale and muddled.
After a prologue introducing us to KurtsWorld96 and his meager social media presence, the film quickly gets into the action, and for a little while, I admittedly found myself mesmerized by watching Kurt kill off his L.A. passengers. But things quickly become repetitive and tiring, and several scenes, like an argument between Kurt and his dad, a failed DJ played by David Arquette, feel like they needlessly drag on for way too long, sapping the movie of any momentum. Things settle into a bit of a groove after Kurt picks up a comedian named Jessie Adams (Saturday Night Live veteran Sasheer Zamata), who has a sizable online following that Kurt would kill for. He becomes obsessed with her, and for no reason other than standard mediocre white guy entitlement, convinces himself that her audience should actually be his.
The film is a visual overload of feeds and streams, presenting all of its action from Kurt’s GoPros attached to his Spree rideshare car or from the phones of characters who venture in and out of it. These aesthetics are used to much better effect in 2018’s Searching, a movie with a script that’s so gripping, you don’t have time to question why certain aspects of the story are caught on video. But Spree is so one-note that I started paying attention to logic flaws, like the time one character is in a life-threatening situation but keeps live-streaming, telling commenters to call the cops for help instead of closing the feed and doing it herself.
Maybe the film will be eye-opening for people who aren’t frequently online, but for everyone else, watching Spree will be akin to taking a submarine ride into the worst parts of the Internet. Kurt’s thirst for fame is purposefully cringeworthy, but ultimately, this is a movie about an inadequate white guy pitching a fit about a talented black woman being more famous than he is. One of Kurt’s Spree riders, an aggro bro named Mario, tells Jessie to smile and then angrily calls her a bitch when she bristles at his behavior. We all (and especially women) see enough of that trash every single day in the real world, and there’s nothing new or interesting about any of it depicted here. There’s also a steady stream of commenters funneling the worst aspects of internet culture into the corners of the movie’s many on-screen social feeds, demanding that Kurt bang any girl he encounters and generally dumping toxic, racist shit into the film’s ever-flowing comments sections. And the insight here is…what, exactly? That misogynist internet commenters are terrible? Great, thanks for that. The movie never goes beyond its surface-level disgust with our addiction to social media, so the result is a story that takes its stance in the first ten minutes and then spends the next excruciating 83 minutes making that same point over and over again.
Keery turns in a good performance, insomuch as Kurt’s thirsty loser is a 180-degree turn from Steve Harrington on Stranger Things, but there’s nothing enjoyable about him slipping into the skin of this maniac, and very rarely anything enjoyable about the experience of watching the film itself. The movie’s final point about commodification was much better made in “Fifteen Million Merits,” a Black Mirror episode that debuted nearly ten years ago, and while I can appreciate the notion of an audience being complicit in terrible things because of the attention we pay to them, this film goes beyond wagging its finger in our faces and instead hems a little too close to reality, turning Kurt into an inspirational 4chan hero. Enough real-world mass murderers have already been deified in those garbage holes of the internet, so watching a fictionalized one – especially in a story that doesn’t have much else to offer – was not time well spent for me.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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