Editor’s note: A version of this review initially ran during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Tribeca Film releases “Rubberneck” and “Red Flag” on VOD today and theatrically at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York on Friday. Indiewire co-hosts a conversation with Karpovsky at the Apple Store in Soho tonight at 6 p.m. For more information, go here.
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 directed a wide variety of projects: a mockumentary about bird watching (“Woodpecker”), a real documentary about improvisation (“Trust Us, This is All Made Up”), and now both a tense thriller, “Rubberneck,” in which he also stars, as he does in “Red Flag,” a quasi-autobiographical comedy about his experience on the road with his one of his earlier movies.
He has additionally acted, usually in comically discomfiting roles, including central roles in 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. He also acts alongside Alan Cumming in the drama “Almost in Love,” which received a small release at New York’s reRun Gastropub last week, as a romantic loner. That movie, shot in two long takes, led critic Brandon Harris to note that Karpovsky “carries the potentially boring stretches.” Indeed, Karpovsky has a tendency to dominate any scene he’s in: On Dunham’s HBO show “Girls,” he’s as vocal as any of the prominent female castmembers.
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His appearance in four new movies released in the past two months, in two cases as actor and in two others 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.
This is familiar Karpovksy territory that he deconstructs in the finest achievement of his recent output, the comedically superb “Red Flag,” where he plays himself as he travels around the country 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.
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. Whether truly narcissistic or an eloquent portrait of narcissism, the movie is a hilarious ode to the modern struggles of the microbudget American filmmaker.
Karpovsky is sufficiently enjoyable in “Supporting Characters,” but “Rubberneck” takes him outside his safety zone. Here, his character’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, which was released in theaters and VOD last week. 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+
“Red Flag”: A-
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? “Red Flag” and “Rubberneck” may not garner more than modest returns on VOD during their immediate releases, but as Karpovsky’s fame grows they may develop cult appeal that sustains their performances in ancilliary markets.
Watch the trailers for “Red Flag” and “Rubberneck” below: