Chances are, if the movie doesn't feature a dolphin with a prosthetic tail on the poster and it carries "inspired by true events" disclaimer, then it's going to be something about murder, mayhem or the decades-long search for the Zodiac killer. So by announcing that your movie is inspired by true events, what could have been an unsettling reveal instead becomes a waiting game: who is going to get killed, how long is it going to take, and why have you never read about it before? It may add a slight bit of tension, but it's at the cost of almost everything else. Such is the case with "Rubberneck," written, directed and starring Lena Dunham confederate Alex Karpovsky, which has an intriguing-enough true crime premise but ends up coming across like something you'd stumble upon on Lifetime one Sunday afternoon (but without all the laughs of, say, "Drew Peterson: Untouchable").
"Rubberneck" focuses on Paul Harris (Karpovsky), a research scientist at a bio-tech facility in Boston. We first meet him at a party following the hiring of a new employee, the beautiful Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman). The two hit it off, with Karpovsky channeling the nebbish intellectualism and offhanded charm that has served him well (and made his performances so memorable) in Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" and new television series "Girls," at least to the point that it doesn't seem like a complete stretch that this nerdy dude takes the beautiful new girl home (fuzzily shot indie movie nudity alert!).
We then jump forward several months. It seems like their tryst was over almost instantaneously (many characters describe it as only having lasted a weekend, while we only get a glimpse of that first night), but Paul still holds on. We see him giving her sideways glances at work and talking to his sister (Amanda Good Hennessey) about what went wrong. When he tells his sister that he's going out on a date, we're optimistic. We see him in a hotel room, with a beautiful girl, but when he interrupts a blowjob because he's "stressed about work" we realize that he's still obsessed with Danielle and that this girl isn't someone he met online (the official story), but rather a prostitute he tips an extra $30 so she can take a cab home. From there the movie starts to spiral towards darkness, essentially becoming a character study of a very, very sick dude that, in fits and starts, tries to resemble a more traditional sexual thriller but more often than not feels antiquated and overtly familiar.
It's a shame, too, because you can feel Karpovsky (and his co-writer, Garth Donovan) occasionally drift to more interesting places – there are moments when Paul is captivated by a mystery woman he sees in the subway that lend the movie a nice edge of surrealism, and there are gentle, quiet moments when we view Paul at work, patiently stroking one of the research center's guinea pigs. But being told, from the beginning, that this is based on a real life event, makes you edgy in the worst way, waiting for the inevitable "terrible thing" to happen. It really is a huge letdown to have the main crux of the movie be telegraphed so early on, especially when the filmmakers are trying, at least partially, to create an atmosphere of unpredictability.
And while the movie, for most of its running time, is just serviceably dull, like those true crime network movies they used to churn out in the mid-90s, when the "terrible thing" happens it becomes a straight-up slog. Any kind of momentum or sense of dread (and the movie was short on that stuff beforehand) is completely gone and we get one tired, clichéd resolution after the next, with characters (supposedly smart, capable characters) making ridiculous decisions, even for the admittedly thin internal logic of the movie. In the end, there isn't much that sets the murkily-shot "Rubberneck" apart from those made-for-television movies, besides some kind of lofty pretensions (the press notes say it "navigates the underpinnings of obsessions and our sadistic inability to look away"), some flashes of fleshy nudity and a complete and utter lack of anything even resembling humor. Kaprovsky makes a valiant attempt to inject introspection and intellectualism to a genre defined by bloodshed and boobs, but "Rubberneck" is a thriller too drab and self-obsessed to ever be truly thrilling. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the Tribeca Film Festival.