Alex Karpovsky is probably best known for playing an offbeat jerk in Lena Dunham's film Tiny Furniture and on her TV show Girls. The popularity of Girls is clearly the reason two of Karpovsky's directorial efforts/starring vehicles, the road trip comedy Red Flag and the low-key thriller Rubberneck, got a perfunctory theatrical engagement as a double-feature last year. Now, this odd program hits DVD with about as much fanfare as it got in the cinema.
First up is Red Flag, which feels like Karpovsky's attempt at a mumblecore Stardust Memories. Karpovsky appears in this fictional film as himself, as if to one-up Woody Allen, who has frequently played himself but hides behind the construct of character names. Nonetheless, Karpovsky's choice feels lazy instead of bold.
The movie opens with Alex moving out of his longtime girlfriend's house, unable to get his dog to come along with him. (The dog's 30-second appearance might be the strongest performance in the film.) Then he screws up his back loading boxes into his car. Then he breaks down crying as he drives away. Like most of the film's humor, this plays as medium-funny: not quite sharp enough to make you burst out laughing, but with the proper rhythm of a joke so you know that one just happened. Karpovsky has a built-in sourpuss expression, meaning the strongest comedy moments usually just involve his deadpan reactions. Still, Karpovsky tries physical gags, which mostly flounder (apart from one moment where a necklace flung during a pre-Mardi Gras parade flies right into that sourpuss of his).
Alex does a ten-city U.S. tour, showing his 2008 film Woodpecker at a handful of tiny repertory theaters and art houses and then shilling DVD copies after each show. Again, the storytelling choice that the film being shown within the film is Karpovsky's own actual work should give the fiction a feeling of reality; instead, it just feels like more self-referential laziness. Considering this and the flat, documentary-style cinematography by Adam Ginsberg, one can easily imagine Karpovsky booking a promo tour for his film in real life and then hastily deciding to concoct some dramatic scenes to shoot along the way.
At one of the stops, Alex has sex with a hippy-dippy filmgoer named River (Jennifer Prediger). Though he gives her a very obvious cold shoulder after their tryst, she shows up at his next screening a few hundred miles away. At this point, Alex has started car-tripping with his friend, a children's book author named Henry (Ding-a-ling-less director Onur Tukel). Henry really likes River, and the two start aggressively courting. Up until then, Alex has hidden both his one-night stand and his break-up from Henry. But when Alex convinces his ex Rachel (Caroline White) to fly out to one of the stops on the tour, he's unable to keep his mounting collection of lies from unraveling.
While Karpovsky manages to pull off quite a few of his scenes, including a surprisingly affecting ending, this feels like a solid 15-minute short padded out to a frequently boring hour and a half. Red Flag rating: ** out of 5.
In the second film in the set, Rubberneck, Karpovsky's stylistic inspiration seems to have shifted from Woody Allen to the recent thrillers of Steven Soderbergh. The slow-burn storytelling effectively approximates something like Soderbergh's Side Effects, but the low-budget aesthetic -- which is admittedly much more stylish than Red Flag -- sometimes causes the film to resemble a straight-to-cable cheapie circa 1993. And while Karpovsky's approach is far less loosey-goosey this time, Rubberneck is not quite a Hitchcockian example of masterful audience manipulation. Not to harp on the Woody Allen comparison, but it's similar to Match Point, which was also a noble, semi-successful experiment from someone working outside their normal skill set.
Rubberneck capitalizes on Karpovsky's naturally creepy awkwardness in its portrait of a toxic romantic obsession. Karpovsky is Paul, a nerdy research scientist who successfully seduces an attractive new coworker, Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman). After a suitably Showtime-y sex scene in the shower, Danielle shuts the introvert down and plays off their tryst as no big deal. But, for Paul, it is a big deal. Months and months pass, and Paul refuses to let go of their stillborn relationship. His sister Linda (Amanda Good Hennessey) tries to persuade him to see other women and get over the whole Danielle thing. He pays lip service to the idea by going on dates with a lovely hooker named Kathy (Dakota Shepard). When a hunky new researcher named Chris (Dennis Staroselsky) starts aggressively flirting with Danielle, and it's clear that she likes it, Paul switches gears from quietly pining to actively stalking.
Karpovsky is a far more effective performer in this film, taking the time to craft a character instead of just appearing as himself. With a too-short haircut that makes him look older than his years, Karpovsky the actor successively expresses the full range of Paul's multifaceted personality, even if Karpovsky the writer (collaborating with Garth Donovan) eventually ends up pigeonholing Paul as just the messy end-product of a long-ago trauma. The rest of the cast seems not only more polished than the performers in Red Flag, but more importantly, they seem to approach their roles with greater focus.
Though it possesses enough qualities to recommend it, Rubberneck is not a home run. It's less egregiously overlong than Red Flag, but I still found myself sporadically bored by this 85-minute movie. And while I'm sure there's a niche group out there for it, it feels really gratuitous for us to have to watch Karpovsky's prominently featured naked butt thrusting during sex scenes in both movies. (Okay, that's a goofy quibble, but I felt it had to be mentioned.)
Still, Rubberneck is quite watchable all the way to the end. It definitely stands as greater incentive to keep an eye on Karpovsky as both a filmmaker and an actor than Red Flag, and it would serve as a perfect little time-killer if you're in the mood for something off the beaten path. Rubberneck rating: *** out of 5.
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