Film Review: Prince Avalanche

David Gordon Green’s lo-fi buddy flick about a couple of slacker road workers strikes a smart middle ground between his atmospheric early work and recent slapdash comedies.

In David Gordon Green’s new comedy Prince Avalanche, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star as Alvin and Lance, both slackers in highly different ways. It’s 1987 in the great state of Texas and the two guys are spending the summer working in a park that was recently burned out by a massive fire. Their assignment is the prosaic stuff of road crews: repainting yellow stripes and putting in reflectors. It’s long and slow work, generating a heavy tedium that’s either maddening or relaxing, depending on their point of view. Alvin, who fancies himself a thinker and a mentor of sorts for his young ward, sees it as a time for self-sufficiency and self-reflection. However, Lance, who in this time period would have been defined as your garden-variety “doofus,” is quietly losing his mind due to the lack of, well, women. Something’s got to give.

Green’s script—based on the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way—is about as far as he can get from the subtlety-be-damned comic shotgunning approach of Pineapple Express and Your Highness. But it’s also not quite a return to the fully naturalistic floatiness of George Washington. There is an actual story here, even if it’s more apt for a one-act play than feature film.

The tempo builds slowly, with the early sections of the film resembling more Alvin’s view of how things should be. Green layers in long, contemplative takes of the two working between restful breaks at their campsite filigreed with lightly jabbing back-and-forth. The only interruptions in the routine (and they all seem resented by Alvin, who reveals himself more and more to be the Felix Ungar of the two) come from a salt-of-the-earth trucker (Lance LeGault) who offers them moonshine when he very occasionally passes through. Other than that and a curious interlude with an older woman reflecting on the burnt ashes of her home, the film is given over to the clashing Rudd and Hirsch, who craft many fleetingly funny moments out of spare and atmospheric material.

They’re both playing guys at loose ends, though Alvin is far from admitting to it. Acting as something between watchful parent and bullying older brother, Alvin lectures Lance on his sloth and other apparent failings while never thinking that his dating Lance’s unseen sister could be causing some of the friction. After things turn south with Alvin’s relationship and Lance returns from a disastrous weekend in town, the scene is set for some chaotic self-introspection in the woods. Alcohol and various states of undress will be involved.

Prince Avalanche is less encounter-group than it might sound. A quiet but explosive Rudd and Hirsch bring the kind of heavily nuanced attention to their characters rarely seen in light indie comedies of this sort. Green’s attention to the great wide spaces surrounding the two—elegantly lensed by Green’s usual cinematographer Tim Orr—and the elegantly mysterious score keep their bickering from taking on more importance than it should. They’re just two guys in the middle of a massive and uncaring landscape, after all. This deliberate pacing and unexpected detours into more weighty personal issues will probably frustrate those looking for a simple, self-deprecating Paul Rudd comedy. But with plenty of big empty vehicles clogging up the resumes of both Rudd and Green, it’s nice to see them both trying for something with a little more soul. A quiet comedy with explosive undercurrents.