‘Fingernails’ Review: Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed Fail to Elevate Dusty ‘Twilight Zone’ Premise

Fingernails,” for all its modern polish, has a dusty “Twilight Zone” premise. Picture, if you will, a machine no bigger than your average microwave. The wall-mounted rectangular box has the power to prove love between two partners yearning for certainty. Insert two Petrie dishes, each with a just-plucked nail as its sample, press a button, and, perhaps after a little smoke, the machine’s screen will reveal whether these two lovebirds are a 100 percent match, 50 percent, or nil.

We will put a pin in the question of whether romantic love can be quantified or if it’s a powerful emotion that can ebb and flow, and focus on the central character, a redhead with a wretched haircut, Anna (Jessie Buckley). The curious elementary school teacher is at a crossroads: she’s interviewing for a new job and considering alternatives besides academics.

The role presents little challenge for this stellar actress, so dynamic in “The Lost Daughter” and heartbreaking in “Women Talking.” She smiles, she floats, she frowns, but has little room to insert her volatile energy in the thin skin of this intensely ordinary character shrouded in oversized sweaters.

Instead, a low-level humming discontent besets Anna. When offered, she accepts a job at a love institute, a drab testing facility run by Duncan (a drawling Luke Wilson) who administers the romantic matching. That she avoids telling her live-in lover Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) that she’s moved on from teaching to love technician is a red flag. Like jobs, she may be interested in switching domestic arrangements, although it’s not something she’s able to discuss with Ryan. He’s just too nice, or maybe she doesn’t want to rock the boat they’ve made together, even if she’s ultimately willing to leap out of it without a life preserver.

In contrast, Ryan’s awash in the certainty of their affection. They have completed the test once, likely at her insistence, and scored 100 percent. They are a love match to withstand the ages. They have sacrificed a fingernail each to prove it. He’s a content guy who accepts science, watches nature documentaries, embraces the routine of work, date night, shared shower, bedtime in the well-worn ruts on either side of the mattress. For Ryan, this is good. For Anna, they’ve arrived at the stage where they’re both intimate and invisible to each other.

His is an underwritten role. For those who hung on every claw of “The Bear,” in which White plays a prodigal chef who returns home to Chicago and confronts his messy family legacy, the actor’s presence was one of the movie’s draws. Those sleepy eyes. Those biceps. He’s sexy even when he’s just sitting on the couch, but he has little more to do than react.

Buckley and White have the power to combust and I’d like to see that energy, hunger for it, but that’s not the destiny of their workaday characters in “Fingernails.”

Greek director Christos Nikou (“Apples”) earnestly plunges on as Anna tries to find her identity in work and love in an antiseptic and flat environment. You don’t need a love machine to divine that when the vaguely dissatisfied Anna first latches eyes on her more experienced co-worker, Amir (dark-eyed dreamboat Riz Ahmed), they’re mutually curious. The spark is out of the bag almost immediately, but we have to wait until the movie’s end for them to catch fire.

As Amir shows Anna the ropes, their clinical observations of assorted test couples (gay and straight, nerdy and not) provide an anecdotal series of unimaginative tests that carries the plot forward. What happens when a couple holds eye contact underwater for one minute? Can a blind-folded male lover sniff out his mate in a room full of test subjects wearing only their underwear?

They may as well be bobbing for apples. That is, if the exercise didn’t culminate in the pulling of nails from their beds to complete the scientific test. When Amir tells the subjects it will just sting a bit, a pinch, we know this can’t be true. This sliver of torment–it’s only a fingernail after all–isn’t for the squeamish. And though I’m used to the bone-crunching brutality of action pictures, and hardly blink at a John Wick bullet ballet, this odd torture in the name of love becomes increasingly unsettling, especially as we begin to doubt the science.

The heart wants what the heart wants, which doesn’t match the results of the fingernail experiment. The movie only scratches the surface, bringing together the sexually potent Buckley, White and Ahmed but unable, or perhaps unwilling, to capture the passion of which they’re capable.

Love can’t be quantified. It is not answerable to a true or false question. It matures, it evolves, and sometimes it stagnates. Nikou’s sci-fi drama is more failed experiment than a fine, or redefining, romance.

Apple TV+ will release “Fingernails” on November 3.

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