It didn’t seem like there was a large portion of the movie-going population who felt that Todd Phillips’ “Joker” was too subtle, in either its commentary on the modern era of those who are involuntarily celibate, or its homage-like appropriation of classic Martin Scorsese movies. But maybe writer-director-producer Eugene Kotlyarenko has other information, since that’s the audience most squarely served by his noisily nihilist “Spree,” about a young rideshare driver who turns vacuously murderous in the pursuit of social media celebrity. It’s a concept that could handily be described as “Tik Tok Taxi Driver” meets “The Gig Economy King of Comedy.”
Joe Keery (“Stranger Things”) is as close to a redeeming feature as the film has, in the role of the irredeemable Kurt Kunkle (even the character’s name sits somewhere between “Rupert Pupkin,” “Travis Bickle” and a Four Loko-flavored belch). Kurt, known to his very, very few followers as @kurtsworld96, grins and pops peace signs while urging viewers to hit him up during a hasty montage of self-promoting video chats and live streams. In between the stick-figure whiteboard drawings that outline his life to date and descriptions of the mouthfeel of a newly unboxed vape, Kurt also incidentally introduces his drug-addled DJ Dad (David Arquette) and his nemesis Bobby, aka @bobbybasecamp (Josh Ovalle), a kid Kurt used to babysit who has attained a level of influencer fame of which Kurt can only dream.
Keery’s likable goofy energy would probably be enough to power a more incisive take on this empty-headed young man’s gradual disenchantment with his flailing personal online brand — “It’s, like, really hard to keep making great content, you know?” he confesses in a low moment. “It’s a numbers game and right now I feel like a zero.” But in the age of identical instagram lifestyle shots and karaoke memes, original insights themselves don’t make for “great content.” And Kotlyarenko, whose lo-fi “Wobble Palace” offered finer observations on modern life than this thinly unfunny black comedy, wants to have his cake and eat it. So the film swipes at the violently amoral lengths to which Kurt will go to win more eyeballs to his feed, while also ensuring an increasingly bloody trail of murder and mayhem that will keep the restless millennial “Spree” viewer sufficiently entergaged.
And so, seemingly overnight, Kurt develops a plan, which he grandly hashtags “The Lesson.” He carefully doctors some free bottles of water, which prove mystifyingly popular with the customers of his Uber/Lyft-like service Spree, and tricks out his car with a load of cameras, convinced that once his ridesharers start dying in real time on his channel, subscriptions will skyrocket. But it doesn’t work out that way, and even after he’s killed a bunch of people — who apparently kind of deserve it because they’re white supremacists or sexist sleazes or Mischa Barton — still the only comments he’s getting are @bobbybasecamp’s negging. Clearly, Kurt needs to tap into a bigger pool of followers, and when he crosses paths with local comedian and online celebrity Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), he decides, stalkerishly, that she might be the key to increasing his clout.
Under the pleasant and paradoxically cheerful blips and bloops of James Ferraro’s electro score, “Spree” adheres to a found-footage ethos by which all the action is recorded and spliced together from Kurt’s dash cams or people’s iPhones or CCTV cameras. The visual cacophony accurately mimics the cluttered, picture-in-picture, split-screen, scrolling-comment-bar aesthetic of our extremely online lives — exactly the kind of shallow, scattershot, attention-annihilating maximalism that many of us come to the cinema in the hopes of escaping.
But beyond the deliberately tacky styling, the chief problem with “Spree” is that for most of us, the most pressing worry regarding social media is not the small possibility that our next Uber driver will murder us to increase his metrics, but the much more pervasive danger of it eroding our aesthetic, cultural and intellectual capabilities to the point that a film as unaware of its own shortcomings and hypocrisies as this one can be considered provocative commentary. If you are in need of more reminders of the most extreme of the potential evils of internet interaction than you get every time you fire up an app, by all means, smash the like button on “Spree.” For the rest of us, the best advice might be to mute, block, vote down, unfollow or simply log off and go look at a tree.