September 12, 2013 Updated: September 12, 2013 at 9:00 am
Austin filmmaker David Gordon Green defies expectations and labels. He started his career making quiet, naturalistic indie character studies ("George Washington") and later moved on to direct broad, big-budget comedies ("Your Highness"). With "Prince Avalanche," a remake of little-seen Icelandic film "Either Way," Green returns to smaller-scale storytelling, working with a skeleton crew, only a few actors and in quick order on location in nearby Bastrop.
You could call it a return to form, but Green has no true form. He's a shape-shifter, a man just as happy making Nike commercials with Kevin Durant as he is spending millions romping around medieval sets on "Your Highness" with his old friend Danny McBride.
McBride also stars in the Green-produced HBO comedy "Eastbound and Down," and as with that show, "Prince Avalanche" centers on a lovable odd couple.
The uptight Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his would-be, could-be dimwitted brother-in-law Lance (Emile Hirsch) work a road crew in a state park in the summer of 1988. Green shot the film in wildfire-devastated Bastrop, and the stripped pines in the desolate park serve as a harsh but beautiful purgatory for the duo who are approaching crossroads in their lives.
Alvin has charitably taken on his girlfriend's burdensome brother to help him paint yellow road stripes all summer and continually finds himself baffled by the arrogance and foolishness of the younger Lance. The self-serious Alvin considers himself something of an intellectual. He listens to German-language tapes in preparation for a trip to Europe with his girlfriend (whom we never meet) and takes pride in his diction and elocution. But the buttoned-up act mostly serves as a charade to hide his insecurities and failings.
Seemingly at the other end of the maturity scale resides Lance, a man of much simpler pleasures who doesn't bother wasting his time considering the way the world may view him outside of his appeal to women. He constantly thinks (and talks) about sex, always with one eye toward the weekend and a journey to the city to satisfy his urges. His simplicity and naivet?irritate Alvin, but there is something pure in this shabby fool that doesn't exist in the meticulous Alvin. Despite his condescending posture, Alvin lacks a joy and reckless thirst that Lance possesses.
Alvin constantly feels the need to exert his authority over Lance - played out in a burst of hilarious, fraternal verbal sparring - but his controlling nature eventually gives way to vulnerability and the acceptance that his life is not as well-ordered as he pretends. And for all of his sexual bluster and carefree attitude, Lance may not have all the answers, either.
Rudd, so often buoyant and smooth in his comedic roles, brings a subtle sadness and dark edge to Alvin. Hirsch, who earned his reputation as a serious actor with his role as Chris McCandless in "Into the Wild," plays the enthusiastic kid brother role with little trace of self-awareness, part laughable buffoon, part lovable pup. The two make for a wonderful pair, whether they're fighting or bonding. The script leaves large spaces that the characters fill with telling looks and silent acts weighted with unspoken emotion.
Austin musicians Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo provide a hypnotic and moving score that mirrors the odd couple's isolation and quiet despair. Both men move through life as if through a dream that occasionally echoes the whispers of their subconscious nightmares. The music, sparse location, and the appearance of two ghost-like characters sent to shake the boys from their self-involved slumber and appreciate their lives make for an abstract piece of art, a meditation on love, empathy and the need for connection. It is an absurd and touching little film that has more heart than one would expect to find in such a slight body.
Starring Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch.
Directed by David Gordon Green. Running time is 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Rated R for some sexual content.