Alex Karpovsky has cut an impressive figure of late as a comedic pinch hitter, compiling a portfolio of dry, acerbic guest roles across a variety of projects. The logical follow-up to this pattern would seem to be Red Flag, a wry road-trip comedy with a marked Albert Brooks influence. But Karpovsky screened two films at Tribeca last year, and both are now being released simultaneously; the odd other side to that coin is Rubberneck, a tedious, inept thriller which pokes dolefully at the outlines of obsession. Grant the young director a few honorary points for branching out into new territory, but there’s little else to defend this dull, lumbering movie.
Karpovsky plays Paul Harris, a research scientist who romances attractive new co-worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman) at their company Christmas party. A brief fling follows, coming to a close the next evening, either because the needy Paul presses too hard or because Danielle wasn’t terribly interested in the first place. The situation is handled with a complex sense of observational restraint, so that even with its smeared shallow-focus visuals and drearily static camera, Rubberneck has promise in the early going. Developing across a well-plotted first act, the film exhibits an incisive eye for the awkward potentiality of early-stage relationships, an arena rutted with pitfalls and trapdoors, especially from the perspective of a damaged neurotic like Paul.
A director like Brooks was able to appreciate the value of these small moments, squeezing entire narratives out of the fraught clumsiness of social impasses and misinterpreted gestures. Red Flag, which explores such loaded territory for laughs, pulls off a similar feat of early-stage examination, even as it eventually succumbs to the same overcomplicated plot mechanics that torpedo this film. Dropping complexity for the sort of hysterical pop psychology familiar from Lifetime movies of the week, Rubberneck descends into the feverish thicket of Paul’s damaged mind and never emerges. Hurt feelings give way to obsession, which gives way to sinister plots and overt threats, coming to a head after Danielle takes up with a married co-worker.
The repetition ingrained in this ascending action is the film’s greatest liability. Rubberneck sets up a firm premise at the outset, establishing a character whose abandonment issues prevent him from connecting to others. Then, instead of exploring this premise, it uses it as fuel for a series of preposterous occurrences, alternated with hints of some buried childhood trauma, a half-assed explanatory gesture positioned as a shocking revelation. The result is a static loop of cause and effect where the volume keeps getting turned higher and higher, a process that renders the film mind-numbingly tedious long before it staggers to a close.
As suggested by the title and a brief concluding scene, Karpovksy also wants to connect the misfortunes of his character with the callousness of an audience hungry for depictions of suffering. Even ignoring the staleness of such a connection, this angle doesn’t jibe at all; he can’t muster the bilious spite of a Michael Haneke, instead settling for some halfhearted stabs at confrontational finger-wagging. The same way that Red Flag muddied its humorous and observational potential with unnecessary self-reflexive gestures, Rubberneck takes on high-concept ideas that it can’t sustain, and which only make its other problems more obvious; maybe if Karpovksy had given his name to the psycho killer here instead of the heartbroken director in Red Flag we’d be in more interesting territory. Instead, this is a soppy, sloppy thriller, one whose relatively strong foundation can’t support the heap of bad ideas piled on top of it.