The relative ubiquity of Alex Karpovsky tends to seem either impressive or suspect. That he currently has two films out in addition to being an in-demand actor — so good in Almost in Love (TMT Review) that the viewer might not even notice Real Actor Alan Cumming is in the film — makes Karpovsky seem like either a wunderkind or an extremely motivated guy with a camera who doesn’t know his limits. If his latest, Red Flag, is any indication, he’s both.
The habit of making an exaggerated version of oneself a character in a work of narrative art has been common for long enough that it’s unremarkable; Red Flag stars Alex Karpovsky as Alex Karpovsky, a filmmaker tossed out by his girlfriend days before the two were to tour Southern auditoriums and campuses showing Alex’s actual 2008 film Woodpecker. Alex elects to carry on with the tour, hoping to use the time alone to clear his head. The character quickly emerges as an obsessive but mild variety of megalomaniac. He rents a car and gives canned intros in front of sparsely attended screenings, eventually hooking up with an ardent fan who begins following him to later screenings. He later finds an old friend, Henry (Onur Tukel), to ride along with him for a few days. Alex the character will not acknowledge to Henry that he’s broken up with his girlfriend Rachel (Caroline White), and so when Henry falls in love with Alex’s stalker (Jennifer Prediger), Alex has few options about where to channel his competitive instincts. It’s as awkward and hilarious as one could expect, and quietly tragic, as Alex — too hapless even to kill himself effectively — still doesn’t seem to be able to tamp down his self-regard, searching frantically online for a synonym for “gifted” to put in his suicide note (he settles on “adroit”).
Red Flag — nearly unlit, almost grainy-looking, with ad-libbed dialogue — appears simultaneously with Karpovsky’s Rubberneck (TMT Review), another film in which he stars as an obsessive — though there the similarities between the films seem to end. Perhaps it’ll help head off accusations of navelgazing to mention that the two productions were “sort of checkerboarded,” with Rubberneck an exercise in filmmaking technique (lenses! lighting! fiction!) and Red Flag a more deliberate attempt to work through his own autobiography.
It would be lazy to accuse Karpovsky of channeling his friend and cohort Lena Dunham in making Red Flag, though their projects here look similar: filmmakers recounting and exaggerating their own missteps a couple years later, keeping many of the autobiographical details intact. The two work together frequently, of course: Karpovsky’s a regular on Girls and appeared in Tiny Furniture, and in both of those roles as well as in Red Flag his characters are all self-assured, oblivious jerks. But Red Flag is distinct from those other works, if only because Karpovsky’s vulnerability makes subtle appearances: at one point Alex lies on a hotel bed arguing with his mother in Russian, she insisting he propose to Rachel, pained expressions crossing his face. Karpovsky doesn’t let his character get away with anything in the film; every self-aggrandizing gesture and savored victory is met quickly with punishment, the retribution often funny and deserved. (The easiest analogue to Karpovsky is Larry David, as both actor and narrative voice.)
Karpovsky is a talented comic actor and writer, capable of coming up with comedic set pieces that seem both original and studied, whether he be trying to cajole a couple in mid-makeout off of his rental car or hoping not to acknowledge that he ignored Henry’s request that Alex be the first to read Henry’s life’s work (an illustrated children’s book in which the main child dies at the end). As the director behind the stellar improv documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, it was already obvious that Karpovsky had a clear mind for comedy; in Red Flag he demonstrates that he’s just as capable ambling without a script as he is on the tightly-written and focused Girls. With his two concurrent releases, Karpovsky makes it clear that he’s prolific but not repetitive, an intelligent and promiscuous filmmaker who remains willing to challenge himself by exploring new genres and interrogating his own past.