Fingernails is a sci-fi romantic drama currently playing on Apple TV+. It posits that, at some unspecified future time, a sizable segment of the population will blandly submit to a test conducted at the “Love Institute,” which is experimenting with how to remove the risk factor from love by scientifically determining if people are wisely partnered in life. In order to do the test, each person agrees to have one fingernail ripped out and run through a gizmometer that tells them if their current match is “positive” or “negative.”
Then, no matter how happy or unhappy they were before, they opt to obey the test and either split up or stay together based on the results. No totalitarian entity is forcing them to do these things.
Look, I’m as ready as the next chump to accept wild sci-fi premises, and even wilder romantic drama premises, for the sake of narrative payoffs later on. But the minute you see the first fingernail-ripping-out scene treated as “just a scratch,” apparently with minimal gasps of pain and a few drops of blood, and nobody rolling around on the floor screeching in agony afterward, your whole sensory system rebels against this film, and you say, “Nope.”
Then the film doubles down on its own idiocy, and you see characters ripping out their OWN fingernails to do retests. I mean, c’mon. All to justify a silly quote at the beginning of the film that says heart trouble first manifests itself in the fingernails.
In order to make all that guff believable, you’d have to have laid a lot of sci-fi groundwork first. Like establishing that, in future, people’s pain receptors have been slowly ceasing to function. David Cronenberg did that in Crimes of the Future in 2022 — not that it was any too convincing there either.
But even if, as a very pliable viewer, you’re willing to accept the fingernail-ripping premise, you keep tripping over all the other inane plot basics. You don’t really expect to have the nature of the love test, or the workings of the gizmometer, explained, because science fiction is so notoriously vague about those kinds of future imaginings. But there has to be some sort of psychological plausibility to allow you to suspend disbelief. And here there’s no indication of why people in the future would be so willing to accept the test results as irrefutable proof of the state of their relationships.
The film’s manifestly ill-suited main couple, Anna (Jessie Buckley of Women Talking, Men, The Lost Daughter, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White of The Bear), already tested positive for being well-matched. And so Anna, who’s especially miserable, carries on every grueling day with her lumpen unresponsive boyfriend. She doesn’t tell him that she’s accepted a new job at the Love Institute lest he suspect it’s largely because she wants to investigate the source of her own discontent. Instead, she lives a secret life piling up lies about what she’s doing every single day that can’t possibly hold water for long.
Soon she develops a desperate yen for her coworker Amir (the very talented Riz Ahmed of Four Lions, Nightcrawler, and Rogue One). He’s equally badly partnered with live-in girlfriend Natasha (the strangely underused Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek, who’s in two short scenes, neither of them interesting).
For almost the entire movie, Amir clearly longs for Anna, who longs for him in return. And nothing will make you more impatient than watching people quiescently accepting a moronic barrier to manifestly mutual love.
The pileup of cretinous plot points continues. For example, at a work party at the Love Institute (after Anna has finally told Ryan where she works, that is), Anna talks to Natasha and finds out Natasha doesn’t even know Amir’s on a medically necessary gluten-free diet.
That’s impossible, because anyone who has a loved one on a gluten-free diet hears about it continually. Every time you prepare a meal, it has to be gluten-free; every time you go to a restaurant, it has to be a restaurant with gluten-free options. And even at that, there are the constant dining-out laments about being unable to eat the bread, which looks so wonderful, and the rather plaintive questions about the entrees that look good but aren’t gluten-free: “Do you have a gluten-free version of this dish?” And always hearing about the latest gluten-free dessert the loved one has just discovered that’s so delicious, you’d never guess it was gluten-free.
All of these distracting implausibilities make me question the gifts of writer-director Christos Nikou, a Greek director whose previous feature is 2020’s Apples, about a pandemic that causes amnesia. Characters in a recovery program are helped to rebuild their identities. It’s said to be “thought-provoking.”
Maybe so. But as for Fingernails, with its portrayal of everyone in the future as incredible dopes, it plays like an unintentional reworking of Idiocracy (2006), only a version very narrowly focused on romantic relationships and made to look posh and somber. Fingernails is even more irksome than Idiocracy, which at least had a few raucous laughs to go with its contempt for the working class. Fingernails attempts to add amusement with Luke Wilson as the blank-eyed, clueless, bearded head of the Love Institute, but he’s overmatched by the material and can’t even raise a wan smile.
And the presence of extravagantly praised actor Jessie Buckley has become, I’m sorry to say, a sign of the kind of filmmaking I detest most: the plodding, pompous kind, loaded with sententious messages that give the project a patina of social conscience but fail to deliver the intellectual engagement or emotional impact that might make the messages stick.
Fingernails wants to tell us that the experience of love is inherently risky and that there’s no way to rule out the possibility of pain, loss, betrayal, and failure in a relationship. It’s a “no shit, Sherlock,” message that every adult already knows in their bones.