Watching “Red Flag” at a film festival is a delightfully meta affair. In fact, the whole film is delightfully meta, a darkly funny autobiographical road movie from "Girls" and "Tiny Furniture" star Alex Karpovsky. Yes, he's not just one of Dunham's boys on the hit HBO show, he's also a promising filmmaker in his own right, and he plants his 'Flag' definitively.
Karpovsky turned lemons into lemonade after a recent breakup. He was scheduled to take his film "Woodpecker" on a tour of the South, and brought along some friends and a one-man crew (talented DP Adam Ginsberg -- keep a look out for him) to make a film about his situation. In the movie "Red Flag," Karpovsky plays a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky who's taking his film "Woodpecker" on tour after his girlfriend Rachel kicks him out of their house. He begs some friends to join, but it turns out Alex hasn't been the best friend and ends up rolling solo through the South. It's one dilapidated motel after the other, one arthouse theater and typical post film Q&A after the other. He finds some rebound solace and connection with a fan, River (Jennifer Prediger), who hits on him during the Q&A (every filmmaker's dream?), but he can't stop thinking about Rachel. Eventually, his buddy Henry (Onur Tukel) hops on board the road trip, just around the time River stalks him at his next stop. Suddenly, three’s a crowd. Henry and River quickly and inexplicably fall in love, while Alex is growing increasingly desperate and unraveled in his situation.
Karpovsky is a lovable curmudgeon, kind of like Woody Allen, only taller and more serious, less frazzled in his demeanor. In the way Allen communicates something about his character through his near frantic neurotic babbling, Karpovsky achieves the same effect with an opposite approach: his deadpan reaction shots are the source of much of the film’s humor and speak volumes about his character him without saying anything at all. Like Allen, it’s hard to distinguish between the onscreen and the off, since they both essentially play versions of themselves. His character is a bit of a jerk, but you sympathize with him. All of his struggles feel very real and very relatable, whether he’s thrown his back out trying to move all of his books out of his girlfriend’s house at once, sipping a beer alone at a bar in a strange city, or cooking up a scheme to win his longtime love back. He messes up a lot of things, but you don’t stop rooting for him to get it right, even though it's absolutely hysterical when he gets it so, so wrong.
For a micro-budget indie shot on the road, the film looks way better than one might expect, eschewing the documentary realist aesthetic found in most indie road films for a sharp, stylish look that relies heavily on editing to move the story along and create humor. Split screen montages are an ingenious device to keep the road trip moving while still communicating story, and there are many humorous moments where the punchline is a smash cut to something unexpected. Alex’s line “I’m not really a--” smashes into the blare of a nighttime Baton Rouge parade, and that cut efficiently communicates what doesn’t necessarily need to be shown, while also creating the distinct humor of this piece, constructed around Alex’s dark and deadpan view of the world. Even in its darkest moments, the film remains laugh out loud funny, while still maintaining a balance of reality, absurdism and the blackest of black humor.
Karpovsky carries the film well with some huge assists by his co-stars, particularly in Tukel, who plays the cuddly and hilarious Henry. His warm, optimistic presence is a much-needed foil to Karpovsky and the two are a great duo. Prediger is spot on as the slightly unhinged grad student River, and Caroline White as Rachel is a grounding force of reality and morality. Of course, not enough can be said about Ginsberg’s camera work and editing, which imbues the film with an energy and liveliness that keeps it from being dragged down by the material. It’s a fun, laugh-out-loud dark comedy, and proves Alex Karpovsky and crew have made their mark. [B+]