Once upon a time, about eight years ago, David Gordon Green was America’s most promising young filmmaker. In certain circles, people were calling him the next Malick, and while comparing a twenty-seven year-old with two feature films under his belt to the greatest American filmmaker since Orson Welles may have been a bit excessive, it was not without reason. Aside from some striking aesthetic similarities (a shared interest in poetic realism and Faulkner-esque characters and dialogue), I think George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2003) simply represent the finest beginning to an American’s career since Badlands and Days Of Heaven. I say all of this just to make it clear why I am so utterly disappointed in his latest film, Your Highness. I appreciate the desire to switch it up and make something different, and I thought Green’s first foray into comedy, Pineapple Express, was at least somewhat entertaining, and since then he has directed multiple episodes of Eastbound and Down, my pick for the funniest show currently on television, but everything he learned from those jobs seems to have been forgotten in this mess of a film. Your Highness simply is not funny. At all.
Eastbound and Down star Danny McBride, who also co-wrote the film, stars as Thadeous, the lazy and crude younger prince of a medieval fantasy kingdom. He prefers to simply sit around, chase girls and get high while his heroic brother Fabious (James Franco) is celebrated for his various quests and clearly more beloved by their father the king. One day, Fabious comes home with his new fiancé, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), who is soon kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (the always underrated Justin Theroux), who wants to use her to awaken a dragon that will allow him to take over the world. The king forces Thadeous to go along on Fabious’ quest to save her or risk banishment. Along the way, they fight a group of dwarves, escape from a village of crazed naked women, fight a few monsters, get molested by both a wizard and a minotaur (a sequence that ends with the sophomoric but still kind of amusing image of Danny McBride wearing a Minotaur penis as a necklace for the rest of the film), get high, make a lot of gay jokes and, eventually, team up with a Isabel, a warrior played by Natalie Portman. After all of that, they eventually remember that they have a princess to save and deal with that problem.
There is only one sequence in the film that can be described as something that is distinctively Green’s. It’s a small moment during Fabious’ interrupted wedding when Thadeous, who has decided to get high and not attend, is chasing a bunch of sheep around a field in slow motion. It’s one brilliantly absurd moment in a film that should have included many more. It is also the film’s most memorable moment and probably it’s funniest. Aesthetically, most of the rest of the film falls pretty flat, with none of the flourishes that have defined Green’s career so far. Outside of this one great scene, most of the attempts at humor basically boil down to a variety of anachronisms , most of which are built around Danny McBride saying things like “fuck” that seem out of place in the medieval setting. Whether or not you are able to sit through this film depends solely on how you feel about McBride and the character he usually plays. Whatever minimal enjoyment I got out of the film comes largely from the fact that I happen to love Eastbound and Down and the basic idea of Kenny Powers fighting medieval monsters. If that does not sound appealing, than there is really nothing here for you; I mean, I dressed as Kenny Powers for Halloween last year and it was barely enough for me. There is not a single remotely amusing moment in the film that focuses only on Franco, who should never play the straight man in a comedy. People loved Pineapple Express because of his utterly ridiculous performance, and he should have been able to do that kind of work here. Deschanel and Portman are wasted in relatively small rolls that forbid either of them from actually being funny.
In a sense, I think they film may have been made as an ironic homage to the over-the-top fantasy films of the 80s, like Clash Of The Titans and Krull than as a regular comedy. The problem is that simply adding raunchy modern dialogue to those films is not enough to make them funny, so its left in something of a middle ground—not engaging enough to be seen as an interesting drama but not funny enough to be simply enjoyed as base entertainment. That aside, there are a few places where the techniques used for homage do kind of pay off. The amusingly inconsistent English accents of the main characters do a good job of poking fun at the questionable acting in those 80s hits. I also did appreciate that the special effects were practical, and not computer generated. A character getting molested by a giant puppet/mechanical minotaur is much funnier than a character getting molested by a computer generated minotaur. Green has said that much of the dialogue was improvised on set, with only a general script outline to guide the actors, which does explain why some of it falls so flat (improv comedy works on TV shows where the actors have time to build their characters and decide how they’d react to a given situation, not in big-budget movies shot in a short period of time). All of this just goes to show that everyone involved had a lot of fun making this movie. Needless to say, nobody in the audience will be as amused as they were.
Your Highness is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, violence and some drug use.
It opens everywhere on April 8th, 2011
Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Danny McBride and Ben Best; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Craig Alpert; original score by Steve Jablonsky; art director, Gary Freeman; produced by Scott Stuber; distributed by Universal Pictures. Run time: 1 hour 42 minutes.
With: Danny McBride (Thadeous), James Franco (Fabious), Natalie Portman (Isabel), Zooey Deschanel (Belladonna), Rasmus Hardiker (Courtney), Toby Jones (Julie) and Justin Theroux (Leezar).