When David Gordon Green took leave of the indie-movie realm to work on three Apatow-ish big-studio comedies, all three of his projects had a distinct retro ‘80s vibe. Pineapple Express (2008) was the kind of profane buddy-action picture that thrived in that decade; Your Highness (2011) was an epic fantasy like Krull or Legend; and The Sitter (2011) was basically a disreputable remake of Adventures in Babysitting with more cocaine and violence.
Prince Avalanche, Green’s first indie movie since Snow Angels (2008), goes further: it’s actually set in the ‘80s, but the film’s period isn’t mined for cheap laughs any more than Green’s studio comedies were self-conscious throwbacks. Rather, the ‘80s setting displaces the movie, setting it outside of time—an isolating factor more than anything else. If Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend’s brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) had access to cell phones, their work, fixing up a stretch of remote Texas road damaged by a series of forest fires (made up by Green, as it turns out), would feel less alien.
Though it has only a handful of characters and consists largely of dialogue and lyrical shots of Green’s beloved conflict between industrial decay and the natural world, Avalanche shares other elements with Green’s comedies—though the sense of humor he’s shown even in his more serious films suggests his career has proceeded less in phases than in shades. Still, the presence of Rudd brings to mind other Apatow buddies like James Franco and Seth Rogen, and Prince Avalanche gets a little looser and sillier with its comedy than the earliest Green indies—delightfully so.
Rudd’s Alvin, in oversized glasses and a bushy mustache, uses a high-minded sense of self-improvement to mask his pain and insecurities, while Hirsch’s Lance plays the slightly dim sidekick, alternately chafing at Alvin’s authority and eager to bond with this older-brother figure. Both actors are very funny, which allows their saddest moments to hit even harder. Hirsch has a bittersweet monologue that starts off as an explanation of why he didn’t really get laid during a weekend break but turns into a heartbreaking essay of disappointment, while Rudd narrates letters back to his unseen girlfriend with quiet desperation.
The arc of the Alvin/Lance relationship doesn’t feel dissimilar to any number of buddy comedies, but the movie’s stark, gorgeous setting and minimalist plot turns it into a buddy comedy reduced to its barest elements. Alvin and Lance aren’t mismatched partners on a mission; they’re just working at a thankless job, fighting off everyday loneliness.
Despite its lack of plot, then, the movie is tight and efficient. You get the feeling Green and his small crew (he “didn’t have toys on this movie,” Green notes, regarding the lack of Steadicam in one shot) got the footage they needed (including a moving scene with a non-professional actor) and got out; the Blu-ray release of the film has but a single deleted scene, wordless and less than half a minute long, of Hirsch dancing.
The disc’s commentary track perpetuates the offbeat buddy-comedy vibe, as Green picks through a couple of members of the crew to serve as sidekicks for him, half-joking about their abilities (or lack thereof) to mix things up. Paul Logan, the talent driver for the movie, proves as game even as Green shoves him aside in favor of craft services coordinator Hugo Garza about halfway through.
Green mainly uses the other crew members to prompt him for observations about the movie, like his idea that Rudd’s mustache and the characters’ brightly colored overalls combined with the film’s desolate environment would give Prince Avalanche a “Super Mario Brothers meets Gerry” vibe (Green, ever eclectic in his Hollywood tastes, also endorses the little-loved film version of Super Mario Brothers as well as the Hirsch-starring Speed Racer).
Many of his insights are also covered on the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes features—understandably, there isn’t an overabundance of non-press-kit materials surrounding a two-hander indie comedy shot in just over two weeks. The movie itself, though, holds up on repeat viewings, and confirms Green’s ability to scale his sensibility up and down as needed. In this case, he’s fashioned a small gem.