You might know him best as Ray, the self-centered, arrogant coffeehouse manager from Lena Dunham’s Girls. Or as Jed, the self-centered, arrogant date from Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture.
But in two features out this week, Alex Karpovsky is much more than that: he’s the psychotic obsessive Paul in the psychological thriller Rubberneck, and an anxious filmmaker named … well, Alex Karpovsky, in the road comedy Red Flag.
And yes, there’s may be some self-centered arrogance to those characters as well.
Karpovsky not only stars in these two films, but also writes and directs; they’re his fourth and fifth features in that capacity. On the surface, the pair couldn’t look more different. Rubberneck, a deadly serious story about a scientist’s obsession with a coworker after an ill-advised one night stand, is a thriller so tightly restrained that it borders on inertia. Paul, who seems a gifted scientist but an emotional child, carries with him a decades-old trauma from his youth. If he were any more inwardly directed, he’d become a black hole.
Red Flag, on the other hand, is a hilarious meta-comedy in which Karpovsky, playing a version of himself, goes on a roadshow tour for a movie he’s directed (Woodpecker, which is also the real Karpovsky’s 2008 sophomore feature) immediately after getting dumped by his girlfriend.
Along the way, he picks up an obsessive fan, an old friend and eventually his ex-girlfriend, all of whom join the tour. Karpovsky’s anxiety-ridden shtick here combines the crippling doubt and self-loathing of many Woody Allen protagonists with the obnoxious solipsism of Larry David.
But beneath those surface differences — and the fact that one is much more successful than its companion — these two pieces share a great deal, and there is some sense in considering their simultaneous release as an odd-couple pairing.
It’s more than just Karpovsky’s seemingly ongoing fascination with playing characters who — whether by choice, circumstance or psychological injury — are living at odds with the rest of the world. It’s also that the structure of both of these films finds their protagonists in agonizingly slow nosedives. And that as the pilots of these doomed planes, both of them are leaning forward on the yoke, leaning into their demise, rather than trying to pull up and out.
Paul, for instance, knows that he’s ill; his sister (Amanda Good Hennessey) gently tries to guide him away from his obsessive impulses towards Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman). He acknowledges his problem even as he goes to great lengths to avoid dealing with it, including hiring a call girl in a non-sexual capacity to put on a show — for himself as much as his sister — that he’s moving on.
Alex, meanwhile, grasps at the straws offered to him by what seems like an endless array of New Age wisdom offered up by the characters along his journey. His brother’s husband lectures him on the bad energy of profanity. His buddy Henry (Onur Tukel) refers him to a reflexologist to cure his back pain — and does so with a monologue about the sexual responsiveness of toes that is both disturbing and darkly funny. The obsessive fan, meanwhile, is named River (Jennifer Prediger), and she talks to Alex about the vibrations of trees.
Alex looks skeptically at all of these people, yet he tries to incorporate many of their ideas into his life. What looks ostensibly like an attempt at self-help is actually him evading his real issues; it’s clear he looks on all of this as fantasy, but it still seems easier than doing the work necessary to heal himself and his relationship.
The cinematic Alex may be laughable, with his tantrums directed at inanimate objects and the way the world around him tends to be an ongoing manifestation of Murphy’s Law. But he’s also the center of more successful of Karpovsky’s two films.
Where the insights of Red Flag come just as easily as the laughs, Rubberneck‘s character study is more labored. The thriller elements of the plot — which Karpovsky delivers quite ably, with an electric tension that carries through much of the film — aren’t really balanced by the personal revelations on which Karpovsky eventually hangs Paul’s problems. Both the mystery and the character piece wind up feeling incomplete.
Red Flag, on the other hand, manages to make its deep dive into Alex’s head while still fulfilling all the standard expectations of the road comedy. How much of the real Alex Karpovsky is in this Alex? Or in Paul for that matter, or Ray, or Jed?
By breaking down parts of the wall between performer and performance here, Karpovsky raises interesting questions about the relationship between the two, particularly in writer-director-star vehicles like this that might often be assumed to be very personal. That’s a lot of complexity for a film with so many sight gags and laugh-out-loud moments, which is what makes Red Flagso fun to watch.