Alex Karpovsky is better known these days for his role as Ray, the surly barista on HBO’s “Girls,” but he had a decent little career going for him as a director before the show — “The Hole Story” (2005), “Woodpecker” (2008) — and, if “Rubberneck” is any evidence, he’ll have one after. The movie, which Karpovsky co-wrote (with Boston-area filmmaker Garth Donovan), directed, and stars in, is a creepy number, half suspense drama and half brooding character study, with a strong dash of local flavor and a low-budget feel. It hints at what Karpovsky’s strengths are as a filmmaker and where he might go from here.
Set in a Cambridge medical lab, “Rubberneck” follows Paul (Karpovsky), a shy, awkwardly serious technician who gets unexpectedly lucky with co-worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman, of ABC’s upcoming “Red Widow”) after an office Christmas party. She’s pretty but shallow, and as far as she’s concerned, theirs was a one-night stand. Eight months later, Paul’s still obsessed. Why? Glimpses of a past trauma, in flashbacks and in his relationship with a worried single-mom sister (Amanda Good Hennessey), tease us with an answer that’s not very convincing when it arrives.
What’s good about “Rubberneck” is also what makes it tough to watch: Karpovsky burrows under the skin of this repressed romantic nebbish until the frame seems ready to burst. Danielle starts a flirtation with a new co-worker, a callow married man named Chris (Dennis Staroselsky), and her apparent betrayal pushes Paul over the edge. He quietly monkey-wrenches their affair, stalking their nighttime meetings on his bicycle. At times, the movie could be “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” redone as horror.
The film keeps us effectively on a fulcrum of sympathy and suspense, much the same way that Paul cuddles with the lab’s guinea pigs before dissecting them into bloody bits. Karpovsky forestalls the inevitable violence, though — he’s more interested in what makes his anti-hero tick-tick-tick.
He gives an interesting performance in the lead, too. On “Girls,” Ray is an insecure loudmouth, all too aware of both his intelligence and his faults. (That recent subway scene where he confesses he’s a loser to Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna is a rare moment of clarity for the character.) Here, Karpovsky winds down the bravura almost to zero: Paul is one of those people no one ever notices, and it’s eating him alive. The actor has a scar on the side of his mouth that gives him a quizzical constant smile and that a more vain performer might hide from the camera. Karpovsky uses it instead to convey Paul’s benign exterior and the turmoil beneath.
As mentioned, the eventual revelation of What Happened to Paul doesn’t land with the weight the movie needs, and “Rubberneck” eventually runs out of gas. It’s a small movie and you sense that Karpovsky isn’t interested in going big, let alone going Hollywood. Still, a little ambition wouldn’t kill him.
On a side note, fans of local filmmaking will find plenty to recognize, including exterior shots of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline and other locations in Cambridge, along the Charles, and elsewhere. The credits are stuffed with folks who make their living (in theory, at least) getting movies made and seen in Boston. Karpovsky’s a Newton kid but lives in Williamsburg now, and “Rubberneck” has a similar mixture of Boston anomie and latent hipsterism. His films never quite blow their cool. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if and when they do.