In his Yale-set comic thriller “Nancy, Please,” debut helmer Andrew Semans paints a pitiless portrait of an academic manchild whose writer’s block turns to paranoia, all directed at the ex-roommate who holds hostage his annotated volume of “Little Dorrit.” Black humor abounds as the hapless hero, caught between two women, crumbles before every challenge on a pathetic downward spiral into apathetic victimhood. Overly one-note in its singular p.o.v., the pic nevertheless offers a welcome variation on the conquering frat boy or Ferris Bueller-type adolescent, and could graduate from fest to arthouse play.
Paul (Will Rogers) is already delinquent with his dissertation when he moves out of the house he shared with landlady Nancy (Eleonore Hendricks) to live with his g.f., Jen (Rebecca Lawrence). He’s inadvertently left behind his copy of “Little Dorrit” and feels the loss acutely, particularly since Nancy seems perversely determined not to give it back.
Notes scrawled on the book’s pages assume mythic proportions in Paul’s mind, becoming the key to unlock the flow of ideas. His days are spent in thinking up ways to triumph over Nancy, egged on by his grad-student friend Charlie (Santino Fontana). But Paul’s efforts only intensify Nancy’s seemingly pathological resistance, culminating in a baseball bat-wielding explosion of anger aimed at the trespassing Paul.
Meanwhile, tormented by the rustling of nesting squirrels in the walls of his new house, Paul drills through the plasterboard and, in a Poe-esque turn, apparently skewers one of the critters. He next attempts to drown one in a cage in his bathtub, but panics when he hears Jen returning, resulting in one of the pic’s more openly comic moments.
Semans employs a more sardonic tone to depict Paul’s growing sense of academic isolation, best captured in the glazed looks of incomprehension his thesis topic produces in even the most sympathetic listeners. Meanwhile, the spookily uncommunicative Nancy reveals that she works impossibly long hours to pay for the hospital care of a mother she despises, which explains her resentment toward this weak, self-indulgent Yalie. Jen, for her part, begins to lose faith in Paul.
Thesping is strong, with Rogers and Hendricks in particular giving believably unsympathetic perfs. But “Nancy, Please” fails to navigate academia as effectively as, say, Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”; for Semans’ conceit of an obsessively narrow world to really work, he needed to have established an initially more expansive milieu. Instead, the impressive Yale campus, which could have given body to Paul’s ambitions, is rendered as a series of featureless corners or dinky interiors, all inexplicably underpopulated. Whatever shrinking perspective Paul’s paranoia induces, then, is hardly distinguishable from his everyday reality.