Editor's note: Today we introduce a new weekly column that focuses on the burgeoning world of video on demand, and shines a light on films that might otherwise fly under the radar.
Might it be a sign of the times that the year's funniest American film isn't playing in theaters? "Nancy, Please," a darkly witty farce about a university Ph.D. student who loses his dissertation notes while earning an F in human etiquette, isn't available on DVD or Blu-ray, either.
Instead, the film debuted this month on various streaming-video sites including iTunes, Xfinity on Demand and Amazon Instant Video, to name a few pay-per-view "channels" accessible via TVs, tablets, laptops and smartphones.
Benefitting from high-definition video streaming technology that barely existed several years ago (while putting the recent crop of Hollywood comedies to shame), "Nancy, Please" is Exhibit A in the burgeoning case for VOD — video on demand — as the premier alternative film platform of the future, if not the present.
First seen at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, "Nancy, Please" may have been shot on a low budget, but its joke-to-laugh ratio is unusually high, particularly for fans of comedies black enough to look like film noir. As it happens, the Nancy character (Eleonore Hendricks) is something of a femme fatale — at least by grad school standards. For reasons that remain amusingly ambiguous, she declines to lift a finger to help her former roommate, Paul (Will Rogers), locate his carefully annotated copy of Dickens' "Little Dorrit," the subject of his vitally important research.
Under the circumstances, Paul does what any deadline-sweating doctoral student would do: He breaks into Nancy's place after dark — and suffers the consequences. Directed by Brooklyn-based first-time filmmaker Andrew Semans, "Nancy, Please" is ridiculous in a deadpan sort of way, but it also works as an incisive portrait of writerly procrastination and neurotic perseverance. Evidently Paul wouldn't dream of starting over on those notes he took in the text, for that would be actual work! Instead, he endlessly obsesses over the "evil" Nancy — and grows increasingly unhinged.
"Nancy, Please" is recommended to anyone who likes to giggle, although graduate students may want to finish that pesky chapter before sitting down to watch, such is the film's capacity to make a delinquent scholar feel like a psycho.
Also new to VOD
Another hilarious indie film in the neighborhood of horror, Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" (1985), has, in the absence of a Blu-ray release, made its high-def home video debut on Vudu, Google Play and other online networks. Though it still seems a minor entry in the director's monumental body of work, this justly spruced-up cult movie — wherein Griffin Dunne's hapless New York clock-puncher struggles to find his way home — suddenly suggests a screwball "Taxi Driver," its dark SoHo streets appearing just wet enough to slip on.
The new documentary "The Iran Job" (Amazon) follows an American basketball player who takes an unlikely gig shooting hoops in the so-called axis of evil, while Calvin Lee Reeder's enjoyably trashy "The Rambler" (HitBliss) stars a slumming Dermot Mulroney in the title role of a guitar-slinging, chain-smoking good ol' boy who zigzags his way to Oregon on back roads that turn bloody.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.