Alex Karpovsky is a man of considerable talent whose time has come. Lost in the hype of the so-called mumblecore movement when it first erupted out of the SXSW scene, Karpovsky was not as prolific or media-savvy as Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers, but his interests as both actor and filmmaker have more complex ingredients.
Over the last five years, Karpovsky has made a mockumentary about bird watching (“Woodpecker”), a real documentary about improvisation (“Trust Us, This is All Made Up”), and now a tense thriller, “Rubberneck,” in which he also stars. He has additionally acted, usually in comically discomfiting roles, including Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax,” Bryan Poyser’s “Lovers Hate,” and Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” as well as several other bit parts. He’s in fine form in “Supporting Characters,” once again teetering on the edge of sarcasm and emotional fragility, and always the most interesting person in the room. (On Dunham’s HBO show “Girls,” he’s as vocal as any of the prominent female castmembers.)
Karpovsky’s two appearances in movies at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, in one case as actor and in another as actor-director, provide a unique opportunity to analyze his broad range. In “Rubberneck,” Karpovsky plays a lovesick Boston lab technician slowly losing his mind, while “Supporting Characters” has him as a struggling New York film editor grappling with a failing relationship.
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He’s in fine, familiar form in “Supporting Characters,” but “Rubberneck” takes him outside his safety zone. Karpovsky’s shy demeanor often clashes with his self-effacing ramblings to amusingly ironic effect. He’s still a headcase in “Rubberneck,” but has reigned in the neuroses, burying them in the texture of his compelling new drama. Using elements of a real story and running with them, Karpovsky plays lonely bachelor Paul, whose introverted ways begin to evolve after a sensual weekend tryst with a lab partner whom he can’t stop fawning over.
As the movie burrows deeper into Paul’s psyche, his claustrophobic mindset dominates through an appreciably eerie score and carefully arranged camera angles that generate a noticeable sense of remove. The drab laboratory setting enhances Paul’s need to escape from his inner demons, the full extent of which only emerge in the final act.
Although it’s initially jarring to see Karpovsky tackle overly serious material both behind and in front of the camera, “Rubberneck” has more in common with the growing Karpovsky oeuvre than it may appear — and even inadvertently critiques it. Were it not for his amusing delivery, Karpovsky’s obsessive onscreen personas would likely come across as maniacs not unlike Paul. The movie smartly interrogates the qualities that make any character likable. (What if the Karpovsky character who crashed at Dunham’s pad in “Tiny Furniture” turned out to be a killer? In retrospect, all the signs are there.)
For those unfamiliar with Karpovsky’s work, “Rubberneck” only works as a generally watchable, sometimes confounding genre exercise. Karpovsky emulates Hitchcock with a lot more restraint than Brian DePalma brought in his prime. But while the movie suffers from a dry and ponderous first hour, it quietly builds velocity for its compelling finale, including a “Psycho”-like revelation that redefines everything from before.
A different set of surprises emerge in “Supporting Characters,” Daniel Schechter’s very light but continually entertaining New York comedy. Karpovsky’s character, Nick, toils away on his projects with no end in sight, while paying lip service to his naive fiance (Sofia Takal) and flirting with the celebrity actress associated with his latest editing gig. Nick has plenty of charm and certainly carries the movie, but his faults build to a point where he must face a comeuppance.
“Supporting Characters” struggles with the issue of whether Nick deserves to sort out his issues or simply cope with them once they blow up in his face. By the end, it’s clear that he’s only the smartest guy in the room because he insists on it; the illusion fades whenever someone else speaks up. That’s the essence of Karpovsky’s best work.
“Supporting Characters”: B+
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Both films should gain decent exposure on the festival circuit but seem unlikely to manage more than modest returns on VOD.
Watch the trailers for both films below: