Alex Karpovsky is not quite himself at the start of “Red Flag.” Of course, I’m not referring to the writer/director who’s never been in finer form, but instead the central character he plays as an actor, a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky who’s left reeling from the end of his longterm relationship with Rachel (Caroline White) just as he’s about to embark on a screening tour of his latest film.
“Red Flag” isn’t Karpovsky’s first film to blur the line between reality and fiction – he reminds us of this by traveling with his similarly cross-pollinated 2008 comedy “Woodpecker” to screen at college campuses. (His first film “The Hole Story” was also quasi-realistic.) Fearing the solitude of being alone with his thoughts on a long drive, Karpovsky scrolls through his phone’s address book before finding a friend (Onur Tukel) to join him on the road, though not before he hooks up with a groupie named River (Jennifer Prediger) after a post-screening Q & A in a tryst he expects to be a one-night stand but will have a ripple effect for days to come as he begins to plot a reunion with his ex of two weeks.
The idea Karpovsky has such an ardent admirer as a low-level indie filmmaker is ridiculous on its face, but in exuding a seductive charm in his firm belief that he’s always the smartest person in the room, all it takes is his upward glance after a few moments of sharp conversation with the opposite sex to have most women’s number and ours. Other filmmakers have taken advantage of his swagger, such as in Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and Bryan Poyser’s “Lovers of Hate,” but in finally doing so for one of his own films, Karpovsky is able to prove himself as a canny romantic lead, even if the sincerest romance in “Red Flag” is his onscreen alter ego’s love for himself.
As much as Karpovsky fills the screen, he’s generous with his cast as an actor and more importantly as a writer, giving even the smallest of roles an extra bit of dimension and puts his three main co-stars on equal footing in their scenes with him. He has a brilliant give and take with Tukel, who perfectly occupies the place of being the onscreen Alex’s fourth or fifth choice as a wingman with palpable distance between them despite being exceptionally comfortable in each other’s company, and though River could have easily been portrayed as a nutjob through and through, Prediger reveals the vulnerability underneath, the character’s issues paling in comparison to Alex’s anyway. Even with significantly less screen time, Caroline White makes the most of it with Rachel’s grim dismissal of Alex in the opening scene leaving a strong enough impression to carry through the rest of the film.
Still, what resonates most about “Red Flag” as a whole is the ease with which Karpovsky can make an audience uneasy, wringing laughs from one awkward situation after another without the narrative ever feeling disconnected or ponderous. Its confidence matches the filmmaker’s onscreen persona (without the obliviousness to other people’s feelings) and it feels like a breakthrough in that regard, reconciling Karpovsky’s more ambitious aim of creating a story indistinguishable from reality with fulfilling the demands of a crowdpleasing comedy. The Karpovsky in front of the camera may have trouble balancing everything on his plate, the one behind it does not.