Director David Gordon Green steps away from the stoner comedies that have lately lined his resume (“Pineapple Express,” “Your Highness”) and returns to the sort of small, character-driven study (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow”) that marked his early career. Based on a 2011 Icelandic indie called “Either Way,” “Prince Avalanche” is a slight two-hander that’s easy to watch, though it doesn’t stick the landing.
It’s set in central Texas in 1988, in the wake of a wildfire the year before that burned 43,000 acres. Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are a two-man road crew in this middle-of-scorched-nowhere. Alvin’s the boss, hand-wheeling the paint contraption that spritzes yellow lines down the middle of the resurfaced road, practicing German lessons on tape as he goes. Lance is the assistant, who’d rather listen to rock — and who happens to have the job only because Alvin is dating his sister, Madison.
It’s a textbook case of contrasts, an odd couple in an outback. Alvin explains that learning German will help him “to become proficient and perform to the best of my abilities.” Yeah, that’s how he talks. Lance meanwhile spends his time lamenting the absence of girls, counting down to the weekend when he can go to town and get his “little man squeezed.”
“He, quite realistically, could never amount to anything,” Alvin writes about Lance in one of his sub-Thoreau-ian letters to Madison, speculating that Lance might be learning-disabled or mentally crippled by some kind of undiagnosed disease. (In this case, the disease could be Jack Black-itis; with long hair and a few extra pounds, Hirsch looks and acts like that actor’s kid brother.)
Director-screenwriter Green, aided by a lively soundtrack from Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, coaxes odd beauty from the often unlovely, burnt landscape his characters plod through. And Rudd and Hirsch are fine actors, but they’re not exactly great ones. Their work is interesting but not revelatory, and you never quite shake the awareness that they’re playing intentionally polarized “characters” rather than disappearing into the roles.
For such an unusual, simple premise, “Prince Avalanche” feels a little formulaic where it doesn’t need to be. A low point comes near the end when Alvin says to Lance, “You’re not the idiot some people think you are.” Well, yes, as a matter of fact, Lance is. That’s not a bad thing; it’s his nature. What’s more idiotic is that line, which comes from the warehouse of secondhand, network-TV scriptwriting. So does the obligatory scene of Alvin and Lance bonding by getting wasted on hooch and trashing their road-working equipment.
These overfamiliar beats are a letdown mainly because most of the movie passes by with such dextrous, deceptive ease. Nothing much happens, but the time flies by. The best parts are interludes with rare strangers: an old, hard-drinking galoot of a truck driver (Lance LeGault) and a sad older woman (Joyce Payne) digging through the ashes of her burned-out house; she may not be totally there in more ways than one. These interesting digressions make the patness of “Prince Avalanche’s” ending feel as if it got grafted on from another, dumber movie.
“Prince Avalanche.” With Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R. 94 minutes. At Plaza Theatre.