Fingernails Review | Worse Than a Hangnail

by Andrew Parker

Director Christos Nikou’s first English language feature, Fingernails, is the worst kind of pretentious: an unoriginal idea that constantly insists its well worn concepts are deeply profound. Cobbled together from notions and concepts about modern love that were better handled in the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Lobster, Her, Electric Dreams, dozens of Woody Allen movies, and even something as low brow as the forgotten Jamie Foxx comedy Breakin’ All the Rules, Fingernails drones on endlessly about looking for love and connection in an impersonal world. Boasting a sense of aloof, cold detachment and stream of consciousness word salad dumps of pesudo-philosophy disguised as meaningful dialogue, Fingernails is a film that thinks very highly of itself without realizing it’s a gigantic bore.

Nikou (Apples) and co-writers Stavros Raptis and Sam Steiner set their story of wire crossed lovers in one of those alternate timeline universes that so many filmmakers like to use for their high concept settings because the implementation of modern technology would undo all of their plotting and subtext. “Future forward” is the charitable term for such a venture, but “convenient” works just as well. It’s the kind of world where cell phones and the internet are forgotten about in favour of land lines and clunky, old school computers that look like microwaves, but modern pop culture references to well known films and musical artists still exist as cultural touchstones and only serve to confuse viewers further. 

Fingernails picks and chooses what it wants to recognize in the world existing outside the narrative because it has been built around a form of genetic and psychological testing that can predict the compatibility of romantic partners, claiming that it can eliminate heartache and divorce by showing people ahead of time that their significant others aren’t viable long term mates. Immediately, the film shows its hand by positioning this as a technological advancement that hurts as many people as it helps, but that leaves Anna (Jessie Buckley) undeterred in her aim to land a job at the company providing such services and learning more about her relationship to Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), her partner who the system said three years ago was a good match. But that match was made before the technology advanced and included a bunch of bonding experiences and tests designed to build intimacy and emotional connection. Now Anna seems unsure. Knowing that her husband thinks these exercises are silly and stupid, Anna takes the new job in secret, and starts working closely with Amir (Riz Ahmed), an employee tasked with coming up with various hypothetical scenarios that potential partners can engage in before getting tested. The more Anna and Amir work together, she suspects him to be a more viable partner than Ryan.

Fingernails is one of those movies that confuses subtext with text through the unsubtle and obvious implementation of its ideas and meandering, simplistic thoughts. It doesn’t matter what sort of technology is used in Nikou’s film because it’s obviously a takedown of modern dating and hook-up apps that have skewed the way we look at human connection. Making the statement that these modern advancements in dating often get things wrong isn’t a refreshing or controversial idea. I would hazard a guess that many people who use these kinds of apps on a daily basis would agree with that assessment, and that heartbreak is just as likely as success, but Nikou approaches the topic in such a sanitized and dour fashion throughout Fingernails that it reeks of someone insisting their take on everything is right while everyone else’s is wrong; like no one else on earth has ever entertained such a thought.

Fingernails oozes with unearned pretension at every turn. From its ochre tinted visual style (except for Anna and Amir, who are occasionally allowed to have pops of blue in their clothing), to ho-hum production design, to static cinematography, and an overwritten inorganic script that has dialogue sounding like its coming out of a chain smoking academic hopped up on cold medicine, Fingernails is a flat out aggravating film to sit through; a perfect reflection of the painful test candidates in this world have to go through, which gives Nikou’s work its title. To a certain extent, I understand that part of the point here is to show a version of humanity that’s completely cut off from emotional instincts and stimuli, but there’s nothing in Nikou’s work to fill that void. It’s so cold that much of this is positioned as a sort of darkly deadpan comedy, but there are so few shreds of humanity that the jokes peppered throughout land without so much as a knowing smirk.

There isn’t a single organic moment to be found within Nikou’s mechanical construction, like the director is trying so hard to achieve his own definition of perfection that nothing else matters. Fingernails is too obtusely arrogant to be pleasing to an everyday viewer, and so focused on very basic aims that it fails to work as performance art or provocation. Every sequence is so dragged down by the world building and the philosophy that goes hand in hand with it that Fingernails often feels like scene after scene of a filmmaker explaining all of their subtext in explicit detail rather than allowing the viewer to come to conclusions on their own. If one thinks long and hard enough about the human relationships in play here, it becomes obvious that the whole thing would work better if the sci-fi aspect that takes up so much of Nikou’s time and energy was excised all-together.

The qualified, but misused cast is largely blameless here, as they’re simply doing what the script and direction asks of them. Buckley suffers the worst, as the film starts painting her character into a corner the longer her conflicted feelings remain unresolved, by the end coming across more like a psychopathic stalker than a lovelorn searcher. Ahmed fares the best, mostly because he’s so adept at making most of his character’s lines sound dryly comedic, which is fitting because Amir often seems like he hates his job and doesn’t want to be there. White is fine, but he’s firmly relegated to third wheel status here, even when Nikou has to stop and consider his character’s feelings for the smallest of seconds. They are trying to make Fingernails work to some degree, but the material is consistently letting them down.

There is precisely ten great minutes to be found in Fingernails, and it’s a minor miracle that they exist at all in something this resolutely messy. It comes when Anna and Amir have finally gotten around to knowing each other on a deeper level and they start creating a genuine, flirtatious bond. For a little while, all of the outside noise and relentless pontificating stops, and people are simply allowed to be themselves. It’s a nice moment, but also one that curiously threatens to undermine everything Nikou has been setting up. It points towards a better movie that lurks beneath the surface of Fingernails, but also exists in a narrative vacuum. Somehow, this makes even the lone grace note to be found in Fingernails as a further indication of the text’s infuriating nature.

The general concepts in Fingernails have all been done before and could be done well again. Would someone willingly endure a moment of physical pain if it meant avoiding a potential lifetime of emotional malaise? Are computers better at predicting the needs of humans? What factors define intimacy and closeness in a relationship? These are interesting questions that are examined in condescending fashion throughout Fingernails, and the theories and philosophies that emerge are remarkably devoid of reflection or originality. It truly is like pulling one’s fingernails out one by one with a pair of pliers.

Fingernails opens in select theatres and is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, November 3, 2023.

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