Whether truly narcissistic or an eloquent portrait of narcissism, Alex Karpovsky’s “Red Flag” is an utterly hilarious ode to the modern struggles of the microbudget American filmmaker. While the prolific Karpovsky has starred in Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax” and Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” — and more recently appears in Dunham’s “Girls” — his trajectory behind the camera predates those notable turns. “Red Flag” merges his skills as actor and filmmaker better than anything preceding it by telling a quasi-autobiographical story.
The movie, in which Karpovsky plays himself, finds him hitting the road with his 2008 feature “Woodpecker” while reeling from a recent breakup. This could be a recipe for excessive self-indulgence, but the meta quality of “Red Flag” is entirely irrelevant to its low key charm and persistent irreverence — anchored, as always, by Karpovsky’s loopy screen presence.
From its opening scene when Karpovsky walks out on longtime girlfriend Rachel (Caroline White), it’s clear that “Red Flag” will get personal with his flailing lifestyle. Eager to orient himself, he decides to travel around the country screening “Woodpecker” wherever he can, eventually enlisting old pal Henry (Onur Tukel), a similarly scatterbrained illustrator, to join him on the journey. Along the way, Karpovsky also scoops up adoring groupie River (Jennifer Prediger), who characterizes Karpovsky as a “charismatic megaphone” before taking her fan worship one step too far.
With this arrangement in place, “Red Flag” takes the form of a leaner, shrewder Todd Phillips movie. With a few millions dollars and some stars to boot, Karpovsky could smarten up mainstream American comedy, although “Red Flag” certainly gets a boost from the director’s close familiarity with the material. His caustic, deprecating storytelling is exhausting and intimate at the same time: You feel just bad enough for him to wish he would wise up.
Attempting to internalize his grief over newfound bachelor life, Karpovsky bitches and moans his way through a series of miscalculated scenarios, eventually making a last ditch attempt to win back his apparent true love. With the ill-conceived intentions of a young Larry David, Karpovsky makes the ideal anti-hero, a man guided by an impulse to put his gut desires ahead of regard for everyone and everything around him.
That would make him a difficult protagonist were he not also so persistently absurd — whether spouting “frittata” during sex in a running attempt to lessen his cussing habit or arguing with hotel management to cut him a deal on his room because his heart has been broken. Ironically set to a playfully upbeat soundtrack (an explicit nod to “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) “Red Flag” deeply sympathizes with Karpovsky’s plight while providing frequent reminders that he’s responsible for his problems more than anyone else.
But “Red Flag” is also a clever treatise on the creative practice. Karpovsky’s road trip provides him with an unlikely form of therapy. Every Q&A session forces Karpovsky to discuss the theme of “Woodpecker,” a mockumentary about a bird watcher searching for the last of a dying species, and relate its metaphor for alienation to his own life. Each new crowd sees Karpovsky explain the movie for the first time, but the camera catches his gradual deterioration. By the final time he recites his inspiration before a crowd, he sounds utterly exhausted.
“Red Flag” veers toward a climactic schoolyard brawl and subsequent finale that creates an odd feeling of uplift without truly resolving anything. While “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is the obvious antecedent for this type of uneasy comedy, Karpovsky’s quirks as a struggling filmmaker coping with vanity and ego echo the kind of messy anti-hero typically found in the films of Korean director Hong Sang-soo. Earlier this year, Karpovsky demonstrated his directorial range with the grim thriller “Rubberneck,” but he’s obviously more at home turning his flaws into a grand joke.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although its appeal is limited, “Red Flag” should enjoy a healthy festival run and some small scale multi-city release akin to the one depicted in the film.