It’s tempting to applaud director David Gordon Green’s newest motion picture, “Prince Avalanche,” just because it’s different from his recent heroic schlub tales like “Pineapple Express” or “Your Highness.”
Though nothing about Seth Rogen or James Franco goofing around ever offended me, there’s a personal sincerity in “Prince Avalanche” that makes this slow burning odd couple movie a more pleasant and wholesome departure. It feels like it’s drawn from the same tableau as his earlier motion picture “All the Real Girls,” and could with its character situations and atmosphere even pass as a sort of sequel to the 2003 film (“Prince Avalanche,” is actually a remake of the 2011 Icelandic picture “Either Way,” which I haven’t seen).
In “Prince Avalanche,” Green taps the same socioeconomic conditions and draws from the RGB color palette of “All the Real Girls.” Factory smokestacks steeple a decaying town in “AtRG,” and in “Prince Avalanche” the scorched trunks of a central Texas woodland ravaged by wildfire frame its subject: a two-man public works road crew.
In “AtRG,” smog and overcast skies desaturate the movie’s colors, and its characters are similarly burdened by circumstance, unable to escape (when one does, it heralds heartbreak). Here, sunbeams break across a forest floor with more than a year of grassy growth while Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) lay down yellow roadway striping in bib-and-brace denim overalls. It’s a more vibrant landscape, and this movie’s world should be—it’s about celebrating and holding on to the promise of new life where “AtRG” grasped for ways to cope with the one slipping away in the wind.
A prayer is, in “AtRG,” offered up in the slow-motion rise of cigarette smoke. In “Prince Avalanche,” the smoke and its antecedent fire—signs of trials, cleansing and sacrifice—have risen and left, leaving Alvin and Lance to learn how to make supplication of each other (and if Green occasionally uses slow motion in “AtRG” as an accent of mood, here it’s flipped on for every transition and almost anytime its characters aren’t talking in order to match our perception of time to that of two men spending a whole summer gluing amber road studs and sinking double reflector posts through a 43,000-acre woodland).
As with any buddy-road trip movie, there’s an initial imbalance between boss-man Alvin and the younger Lance, who Alvin hired because he’s dating Lance’s sister. For example, they argue over whether to listen to rock n’roll (Lance) or something “educational” like Rosetta Stone lessons in German (Alvin). The argument ends when Alvin exerts employer say-so to win after his faux-intellectual dodging fails.
On the one hand, Alvin, whose name means something like “god-like friend,” just wants to “reap the rewards of being alone” in nature. Then there’s Lance (meaning “land,” or perhaps the more phallic “spear”) who “gets so horny in nature,” and spends his downtime imagining how he can get his “little man squeezed” on the weekends.
There’s certainly no romance between these two dudes, but the friendship that develops between them refers to the relationship dynamics of lovers, brothers, fathers, sons and more. At first, Alvin stresses his authority as employer, then a little later as a sort of god-like father figure trying to tame and train an unruly son (the land?).
Later, their roles are reversed (much like their “enjoy the silence” excuses) when a late-narrative reveal shifts Lance into the role of father. It’s one Lance slides into easily after trying to locate himself in Aloha dress shirts and a white lab coat. All of that said, the friendship between these two misfits is too compelling to be one of locked dynamics.
Especially since what’s inert in a relationship usually spells misfortune. All relationships end poorly, says an amiable truck driver (the late Lance LeGault) while dispensing moonshine-fueled warnings to Alvin and Lance. And it seems like it does for Alvin until we learn the money enveloped for his monochrome girlfriend supported the exuberant Lance instead.
Alvin, Lance tries to explain, is a prince who’s trying to return to his kingdom (if that sounds hokey, consider in good fun Alvin’s mustache and the pair’s blue overalls which easily invoke Nintendo’s Mario Brothers). Acting the part of the Nintendo character, Alvin wishes he could have a “triple jump” talent. He tries to fly after a physical confrontation, and falls—a prince of God wounded in his hip.
With Alvin’s miming of a domestic life and Lance’s father-or-not struggle, the decision to return to town (which we never see) is a significant one, freed from wandering in the wilderness, their return to the Promised Land after wrecking the table, wheelbarrow and outdoor grill – after becoming themselves a cleansing fire, abandoning burned homes and woodlands that visually register as skeletons, ditching their posts and roads, surface markings that speed in black-and-white to heartbreak.
At one point among the charred frames of a former home, Alvin meets a woman, perhaps a ghost, (played by Joyce Payne, whose house really did burn in the Bastrop, Texas wildfire) who says, “Sometimes it feels like I’m digging in my own ashes.” It’s a profoundly tragic dust-to-dust statement, one of the movie’s many elements placing the child-like horseplay of Alvin (the chipmunk with the film’s reference to Dave’s “ALVIN!”) and Lance in sharp relief.
Growth is what matters here, not just the wild vulgar fun of Green’s recent stinkers. In “Prince Avalanche,” Alvin and Lance leave the forest to meet women at a beauty pageant. In other words, these princes are on a quest to find queens.