The travails of the man child take an intriguing new direction in "Nancy, Please," the feature-length debut of writer-director Andrew Semans. His bumbling anti-hero, hopelessly procrastinatory Yale PhD student Paul (Will Rogers), fits the kind of immature young adult role that might go to Jason Segel in a mainstream version of this discomfiting tale, which would indubitably end with a new lesson learned. "Nancy, Please" avoids that route, fiercely dedicated to making nearly everyone in its cast unlikable and irredeemable but nevertheless objects of pity.
At the movie's start, Paul moves into a new home with his supportive girlfriend Jen (Rebecca Lawrence), then realizes he has left a copy of Charles Dickens' "Little Dorrit" at his old home, where it lies in possession of his strange ex-roommate Nancy (Elenore Hendricks, who played Ronald Bronstein's ex-wife in "Daddy Longlegs"). Facing extreme pressure from his advisor to finish his yet-to-be-written dissertation, Paul determines that he must first retrieve the missing book, which contains his handwritten notes. But the elusive Nancy, for whatever reason, won't give it back.
From that initial set-up, "Nancy, Please" morphs into a series of misadventures loaded with "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-level cringe moments funneled into a thriller mold. Paul's repeated attempts to contact Nancy, at first by sending Jen to corner the woman at her waitress gig, then leaving frantic voicemails and eventually stalking her outside her home, start spiraling downward early on and never stop.
While there's an inherent entertainment value to Paul's insistence that he must get his book back, "Nancy, Please" strains from attempts to make his logic believable. Nancy, who appears only in a few scenes as a moody headcase, ignores Paul's requests for reasons never revealed; both she and "Little Dorrit" are ostensibly the MacGuffins used to reveal Paul's debilitating tendency to place blame for his mistakes on other people, as demonstrated by the way he gradually drives his girlfriend nuts.
It's an intriguing hook that occasionally holds interest but never fully pays off. Paul's increasingly hectic attempts to retrieve the book dominate the movie so heavily that it leaves little room for considering how this effort fits into the rest of his world. That's not the only case of underdevelopment: Hendricks, an ideal choice for the type of frumpy, mean-spirited character the script calls for, only gets the chance to emerge as a tangible personality in the final scene. At that point "Nancy, Please" has pushed its premise to a point of extreme exasperation. Competently shot to accentuate the uncomfortable tone, it never earns its dedication to making Paul so utterly despicable, although Semans ably constructs his anti-hero's worldview in a way that makes it difficult to realize the limitations of his perspective until the very end.
"There is something willfully hostile about the way you interact with people," Paul yells at Nancy in a sudden outburst, but of course he's talking about himself. While "Nancy, Please" provides a unique window into the inner workings of said hostility, it struggles to build on it. As a friend eventually tells Paul, "I can't sit here and listen to another monologue about Nancy." At last, a sensible voice.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, "Nancy, Please" is a strong enough debut to put Semans on the map as a director to watch, although the film's lack of stars and uncomfortable story mean that it probably won't land much beyond a small VOD deal.