Here’s a humble wig-out, a curio that could endure beyond its creators’ more demonstrably successful works—and for decades will certainly confound audiences who think they’re streaming/torrenting/eye-jacking some broad Paul Rudd comedy they had forgotten about. Prince Avalanche director David Gordon Green gives star Rudd more chances to charm than he’s had in the last few Judd Apatow joints, and the actor, here sporting a twitchy burr of a mustache, stirs laughs by appearance alone. As a workin’ man laying the yellow lines on the roads in a dead but huge Texas state park in 1988, Rudd wears crisp overalls, seems weirdly proud of his tool belt and goggles, and looks for all the world like the star of some pre-Depression two-reeler, one of those calm-seeming but hilariously desperate everylugs whose new jobs always result in expert humiliation.
He does fall down, amusingly, but Prince Avalanche isn’t that kind of comedy. Just what kind it is is, in some ways, its story’s central mystery: Two men, Rudd’s Alvin and the much younger Lance (Emile Hirsch, tender in coarseness), lay paint, camp in the woods, and discover with us just who they are—and what kind of world they live in. It’s a schlubby, existential, black-box-theater character study, steeped in warm silences and anxious boys’ talk, sugared up with sublime shots of fire-ravaged forest and wild streams percolating with raindrops. One sequence of Rudd taking a swim in that rain is as gorgeous as anything I’ve seen onscreen in the last few years; the real miracle is that it turns up in a big-hearted, small-scoped film in which men crab at each other over farts and control of the radio.
There is a story. Rudd’s Alvin is pledged to Lance’s sister, to whom he pens letters puffed up with all the self-importance absent from cinematographer Tim Orr’s camerawork. Lance heads home on the weekends to “party” with any woman he can sweet-talk into bed, but Alvin sacks out on a hammock in the park, more eager for Emersonian transcendence than the pleasures of the flesh—or even other people. As the film goes on, deepening in its urgency and strangeness, we slowly realize: Alvin should be going into town, too, to see Lance’s sister. From there, Rudd and Green peel back this guy’s pretensions, his niceness, his everything, often in prickly, elusive scenes that are the opposite of on-the-nose; they’re off-the-face. Meanwhile, his small blowups with Lance kaboom into explosions, as blowups between comedy leads must. The guys spill into goofball violence and heal through even more reckless drunkenness. A couple other characters wander the park, too, dispensing wisdom and maybe not quite literally existing. It’s that kind of movie.
Green made a dazzling debut with George Washington, also shot by Orr, a sumptuous indie whatsit of rural poverty, awkward kid romance, and knotted Faulknerian dialogue—a film that still haunts me, on occasion, though I haven’t seen it since 2000. A few years later, Green directed the likable stoner comedy Pineapple Express and its weaksauce imitators, Your Highness and The Sitter. Prince Avalanche reconciles Green’s twin modes into a whole no other director could have, deeply felt and light as laughter.