Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Movie Review: Prince Avalanche

Prince Avalanche
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: David Gordon Green based on the film written by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson.
Starring: Paul Rudd (Alvin), Emile Hirsch (Lance), Lance LeGault (Truck Driver), Joyce Payne (Lady), Gina Grande (Madison), Lynn Shelton (Voice of Madison).

At one point, not that long ago, David Gordon Green was one of my favorite up and coming filmmakers. His first three films – George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003) and Undertow (2004) – were great, small slices of life. He didn’t seem too interested in a standard plot, but was more interested in mood, tone and performance. His fourth film, Snow Angels (2007) was more plot driven than the first three, but was also a near-great film – a tragedy played out in intimate detail. Because those films made very little money, it didn’t surprise me when he decided to make something more mainstream. The result was Pineapple Express (2008) – which is one of the great stoner movies in recent memory, and although it seemed much different than his previous films – and was in many ways – it also shared some similarities. And then, things kind of flew off the rails for Green. Buoyed by the success of Pineapple Express, he made two comedies in 2011 – Your Highness and The Sitter – both of them nearly unwatchable. If one assumed that Green would adopt a “one for them, one for you” mentality that many in Hollywood have, the fact that he made three mainstream comedies in a row – and two of them awful – seemed to suggest otherwise. I feared that Green would become yet another indie causality – a talented director who showed a ton of promise, who gets chewed up and spit out by Hollywood.

His latest film, Prince Avalanche, then comes as a welcome relief. No, it’s not as good as Green’s earlier films, but it is at least a step in the right direction. Oddly, Green seems to be trying to combine the comedic elements of his more mainstream efforts, with the look and feel of his earlier films, and it makes for an odd marriage – not a bad one mind you, but an odd one.

The film stars Paul Rudd as Alvin and Emile Hirsch as Lance. The year is 1988, and the two of them work on the road crew, repainting the lines, hammering in polls, and gluing on reflectors, on a stretch of desolate Texas highway that had been destroyed by fire. The two of them spend the week with no company except for each other – camp out every night, and have seemingly little in common. Alvin did this job alone for a few months, but was convinced by his girlfriend to give her aimless brother Lance a job assisting him. While Alvin seems content to let the days pass in relative silence, Lance feels the need to chatter on endlessly. The two are seemingly polar opposites – which, of course, is the oldest strategy in the world when it comes to buddy comedies.

In some ways, that is what Prince Avalanche is. When the two are together, more often than not, they are arguing with each other – whether it’s about the radio, the food, the monotony or anything else, the two don’t see eye to eye on anything, so of course there’s friction. Green could have made a more mainstream buddy comedy out of this material – and even kept the same two actors, as Rudd and Hirsch have good screen chemistry, and play off each other well.

But then Green adds in scenes of more quiet contemplation – as when Lance goes away for the weekend, and Alvin stays behind to be at one with nature. Green may be trying a little too hard in these scenes to be artistic – some of the shots seem out of place, as if he were trying to earn the comparisons he got to Terrence Malick earlier in his career again. The presence of an older woman during this sequence is one of the emotional high points of the film – but her numerous reappearances over the course of the film don’t really seem to work. The same could be said of the truck driver who shows up occasionally – each time he shows up, it’s a little less effective than the last.

But Green does manage to get solid performances out of his two stars. Rudd has become a comedic star over the past few years, and I do think he can be hilarious, but Prince Avalanche is a welcome reminder that there is more to him than just those comedies. This is a quiet, subtle performance as a man who is essentially hiding from the world until he can no longer. Hirsch’s role doesn’t give him the same opportunity for complexity – and he is an actor who exudes a little too much intelligence to play a character so dim – yet he is still charming, and funny –he makes a good sidekick for Rudd.

In short, while Prince Avalanche is a set in the right direction for Green – a return to the type of personal, less narrative driven films he built his reputation on, it’s still not quite as good as his best. Perhaps though, this is a signal that Green wants to return to this type of film – or perhaps something even more ambitious – something more accessible than his first films, but more intelligent and grounded than his recent output. That’s a welcome sign. I took no joy in heavily criticizing a director I thought was well on the way to be one of the greats. Hopefully, after a detour, he’s back on track.

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