Alex Karpovsky has a distinctively low-key screen presence. Lanky and gawky, almost like an overgrown teenager, this intriguing actor has appeared in mumblecore films including “Beeswax” and “Tiny Furniture.” He may be best recognized for his role as Ray Ploshansky on HBO’s “Girls.”
Karpovsky is now proving himself to be a formidable writer and director. He has two new films now out in theaters that make for an interesting double feature.
These dramas may seem like vanity projects — and in one case, it may be just that — but they also demonstrate Karpovsky’s interest in how people fail to function in society and grow unable to accept reality.
“Rubberneck,” which he directed and co-wrote with Garth Donovan, is a compelling character study about Paul (Karpovsky), a lab scientist. The film monitors Paul like a lab rat himself, charting his routine and probing his behavior as he tests the boundaries of what he can do and how far he can go. There are quiet, introspective moments of him fishing but also sinister ones, as when he eavesdrops on colleagues. “Rubberneck” can be engrossing as it slowly reveals Paul’s true nature, but it eventually gets far-fetched.
The film pivots on a fling Paul has with Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman), a comely co-worker. After spending a weekend together, she dumps him and he is heartbroken. Eight months later, the lonely Paul is still angry and also suffers from anxiety, which creates problems for him with other women. We see him reject Kathy (Dakota Shepard) — a naked prostitute giving him a blowjob — because he is too “stressed out.”
Paul’s sister (Amanda Good Hennessey) urges him to get over Danielle, but he becomes further consumed with jealousy when Danielle befriends a handsome married co-worker, Chris (Dennis Staroselsky). Paul uncomfortably continues trying to ingratiate himself with Danielle, who is cautiously polite in response. Things get downright squirm-inducing when his tactics become manipulative and creepy in an ill-fated effort to win her back.
It’s best not to spoil the big dramatic reveal in “Rubberneck,” which forces a reevaluation of who Paul is. Suddenly, the gentle man who pets the lab animals may not be such a nice, quiet guy.
Karpovsky’s slow-burn storytelling mostly works, except when he introduces a childhood trauma meant to explain Paul’s abandonment issues. It is a facile psychological answer to his character and poorly foreshadowed. Still, Karpovsky is compelling in portraying the desperation of a scorned heart.
Dashed love is also at the core of Karpovsky’s “Red Flag,” a frustration comedy about a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky who is, of course, played by Karpovsky. As the film opens, Alex is moving out of the house he shared with his girlfriend Rachel (Caroline White). The back pain he suffers in loading up the car complements the emotional hurt he feels as his four-and-a-half-year relationship ends.
Alex heads over to his gay brother’s house before embarking on a two-week road trip to the South, where he will present screenings of his film “Woodpecker,” which is playing to ever-smaller audiences. (The real Karpovsky made a film of the same name in 2008). His brother’s lover instructs him to tone down his anger by finding a substitute for the F-word, and this prompts the film’s funniest running joke.
Alex’s loneliness and misfortunes are played for laughs, and audiences will either be amused or roll their eyes as Alex experiences back spasms at the worst possible moments and is repeatedly rebuffed trying to secure a late check-out time from the hotels where he stays.
“Red Flag” plays on the idea of second chances, with its humor coming from the ways in which Alex ruins first chances. As in “Rubberneck,” Karpovsky’s character lacks confidence but engenders little sympathy in part because he is also selfish. Alex is a true sad sack, struggling with all manner of emotional and physical discomfort, including a badly damaged toenail. The filmmaker, though, sometimes tries too hard, as when someone throws beads in Alex’s face in New Orleans. One awkwardly funny scene has Alex leaving a bar one night, only to be trapped in the parking lot because two guys are leaned up against his car making out.
“Red Flag” includes several foils who test Alex’s patience. River (Jennifer Prediger) compliments him at a screening and later that night has sex with him. He regrets it immediately and tells her as much when she tracks him down at his next screening. When River then hooks up with Alex’s friend Henry (Onur Tukel), who has joined him on his trip, Alex’s heartache flares up again and he refocuses on winning Rachel back. A scene where he purchases an engagement ring he hopes Rachel will accept is a highlight of the film.
Alex’s efforts to keep his dalliance with River a secret from both Henry and Rachel generates some tension, though not enough for a big payoff. Still, Karpovsky ends his uneven comedy by giving audiences a sly smile.
RUBBERNECK | RED FLAG | Directed by Alex Karpovsky | Tribeca Films | Opens Feb. 22 | Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center | 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com