Three decades ago, Albert Brooks made a punishingly hilarious comedy, Modern Romance, that juxtaposed the professional hardships of film editing with a jaundiced look at romantic relationships. Its legacy looms large over the new no-budget indie Supporting Characters, which takes place in New York rather than Los Angeles, and expands its focus to include the assistant editor’s love life, but otherwise covers dangerously similar terrain. To his credit, however, director/co-writer Daniel Schechter seems to have realized that all the really good jokes about recutting and looping (two words: “Hulk running”) were already taken. Instead, he goes for a more gently funny, offhandedly naturalistic approach, settling for wry chuckles and a few modest observations rather than attempting to match Brooks’ go-for-broke insanity.
There might be some self-awareness here, because one of the first scenes between the two editors, Alex Karpovsky and Tarik Lowe, has them eavesdropping on a test screening of their current project and worrying when nobody laughs. The movie, which the audience only sees in snippets, appears to be a romantic comedy about dog-walkers, starring a hot actress (Arielle Kebbel) Karpovsky has started flirting with, though he’s happily engaged to Sophia Takal. Lowe, meanwhile, has decided to propose to his girlfriend of just a few months (Melonie Diaz), in spite of concerns about the time she spends hanging out with another guy. Additional subplots involve the fellas’ battles with their mostly absentee director (Kevin Corrigan) and Karpovsky’s qualms regarding a future gig that he’d have to do without Lowe, since its budget can’t cover them both. (There may be some self-awareness here as well.)
None of these strands develop anything resembling dramatic momentum, and Supporting Characters tends to meander pleasantly from scene to scene, relying on the testy rapport between its two lead actors. (Karpovsky is now a regular on Girls, playing Zosia Mamet’s doofus boyfriend. As a favor, Lena Dunham drops in here for one scene, though she’s given little to do.) Schechter and Lowe (who co-wrote) do make one remarkably bold move, introducing a new angle to Karpovsky and Takal’s relationship out of nowhere late in the going; this comes across as a logical, comprehensible (though previously unseen) aspect of Karpovsky’s character, rather than as a “twist” or a cheat, which makes the rest of the film seem retroactively more impressive, and its portrait of male fecklessness more potent. Still, it takes a lot of low-grade shambling to get there. As any editor will attest, sometimes there’s only so much you can do—if the material doesn’t have a powerful voice, no amount of tweaking and paring can make it sing.