I think I get what the makers of Your Highness were going for. The director, David Gordon Green, was previously a critics’ darling for his first four indie films, George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels (all excellent, by the way). Then came the bigger-budgeted mainstream stoner comedy Pineapple Express, a head-scratcher coming off his previous work, but OK, it was still pretty excellent on its own terms.
Now here’s Your Highness, a medieval fantasy-comedy with a $50 million budget and overdose of infantile humor. It’s another stoner comedy (not that the story deals much with marijuana), in the sense that the filmmakers expect their audience to be high (and possibly were themselves). It’s also a terrible movie, and since I have little doubt that Green knows what he’s doing, I can only conclude that’s exactly what he set out to make.
It’s terrible in that 1980s Beastmaster/Deathstalker/Sorceress B-movie sword-and-sorcery fashion, with plenty of creature effects, graphic violence, and topless women. And, here’s the twist, dick and fart jokes and a torrent of f-bombs. It might be fun, you think, but then the jokes aren’t funny and the plot is maddeningly formulaic, and pretty soon you’re sitting there unamused waiting for this thing to resolve itself so you can go home.
Green doesn’t have to shoulder all the blame here. No, a lot of that falls to Danny McBride, who co-wrote the movie with Ben Best and takes the leading role. McBride co-starred in Green’s All the Real Girls, and made a splash in the indie The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound and Down (both also co-written with Best, and both pretty fun). As an abusive karate instructor or a John Rocker-esque MLB failure, he’s the pathetic asshole we love to hate, because we don’t have to pity him.
He’s virtually the same character transported to the middle ages in Your Highness, but here we just hate him; no love involved. He plays Prince Thadeous, a pothead loser who is about to be hanged for infidelity in the dwarf kingdom. He escapes, of course, because the dwarf gallows are too short for a man of his size. Heh. That’s just about the best scripted joke in the film.
Back in his own kingdom, heroic brother and heir to the throne Prince Fabious (James Franco) has just slain a Cyclops and rescued maiden Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), who he intends to marry. When Belladonna is re-captured by villainous wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), the King (Charles Dance) gives Thadeous an ultimatum: go on a quest with your brother to rescue her, or, uh, or else.
These are good actors, you think. Franco, from Green’s Pineapple Express and coming off an Oscar nom for 127 Hours; Theroux, from David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire; indie favorite Deschanel, and always reliable (and underused) Dance. And then there’s Natalie Portman, fresh off her Oscar for Black Swan, who shows up halfway through as Isabel, the steely warrior princess. And then there’s Toby Jones (Infamous), Damien Lewis (Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane), Simon Farnaby (Bunny and the Bull).
All terrific actors, and they’re (almost) all hung out to dry here. Franco plays it mostly straight, Portman entirely so, and they’re both saddled with vague British(ish) accents that call their talents into question (Franco does score with the occasional one-liner, however). Deschanel barely utters a word. Dance, Jones, and Lewis all serve to advance the plot, as it were, with nary a chuckle between them (Lewis has a single amusing line). Theroux, unrecognizable and allowed to riff wildly as the chief villain, is the only actor to come out of this unscathed.
And then there’s McBride. Front-and-center along with mopey sidekick Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), he’s the only actor besides Theroux who gets to joke around, and his shtick gets real old, real fast. There’s a disconnect between his pathetic loser presence and the character’s underdog hero role; the screenplay doesn’t seem to understand that we might enjoy laughing at this character, or incredulously because of him, but certainly not with him.
IMDb informs me that “(director) Green said there was never a script used on-set. Only the plot outline and written notes were used.” No surprise. But for everything else that is wrong with Your Highness, that plot outline is the largest offender: it’s so familiar and formulaic, with so much exposition to get through, that this potential so-bad-it’s-good experience turns into a real drag, lurching from one plot point to the next.
Green might not have cared so much about his story, but investors may have forced his hand in an effort to make this mainstream-palatable. Not that that worked out.
While the production elements are high (production design by Mark Tildesley, widescreen cinematography by Tim Orr, music from Steve Jablonsky), Your Highness is a failure by most standards of entertainment. And yet, there’s something brazen about this mess, the way all the fantasy elements – beefy sword-wielding hunks, villages of topless women, Simon the mechanical bird, the five-headed finger hydra, the dirty old Wize Wizard, the Minotaur and his severed penis – are thrown in the pot and left to stew.
I didn’t hate Your Highness, and even plan to revisit it in the (distant) future. It will, no doubt, become a cult item of some regard. The sticky icky is sure to help.