As Ray, by far the most compelling guy character on HBO’s Girls, Alex Karpovsky is a mysterious, volatile presence, whiplashing between belligerence on one end and vulnerability on the other. His hostility acts as a kind of defense mechanism, and it takes a degree of patience and trust to get around it and see the real him. Karpovsky plays himself in Red Flag, a frequently hilarious DIY road comedy, one of two films (the psychological thriller Rubberneck is the other) the writer-director-star is releasing simultaneously. But there’s a lot of Ray in Karpovsky’s character, along with a healthy strain of self-deprecation to chase the narcissism away. Modest, personal, and nicely proportioned, Red Flag resembles one of Hong Sang-soo’s self-reflexive doodles about relationships and filmmaking—Oki’s Movie, in particular—and it wisely doesn’t take too big a bite.
As the film opens, Karpovsky has just broken up with his girlfriend (Caroline White) of nearly five years, ending a relationship doomed mainly by his neurotic inability to commit. Hard up for money—and simply needing to get away—he embarks on a road trip with his 2008 feature Woodpecker, hitting various half-filled theaters throughout the South and selling a duffel-full of DVDs at $20 a pop. On his first night on the road, Karpovsky has a one-night stand with Jennifer Prediger, an attractive young woman with the mistaken impression they had more of a connection. Meanwhile, one of Karpovsky’s sort-of friends, a hirsute children’s-book illustrator played by Onur Tukel, decides to join him on tour. When Prediger surprises Karpovsky by turning up at another screening, he tries to use Tukel to run interference, but it instead leads to a love triangle that grows more strained when Karpovsky’s ex re-enters the picture.
Red Flag’s best scenes happen in the many spaces before the plot begins to assert itself. Karpovsky knows well the grind of doing intros and Q&As before half-interested audiences, and he has a strong comedic chemistry with Tukel, whose adaptability contrasts so sharply with Karpovsky’s neediness and anxiety that their friendship becomes all but inexplicable. (In one of the film’s funnier details, Tukel’s latest project is a picture book about a haunted piano where the kid protagonist dies in the end.) Karpovsky’s one-night stand with Prediger is the one dramatic bombshell timed to detonate, and it’s the film’s one major misstep, leading to a poorly staged, seriocomic payoff that makes it seem half-committed to its own conflict. Such is the danger of DIY: There’s a fine line between the casually personal and the tossed-off.