Your HighnessReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/08/11 00:00:00
Over the years, I have seen many artistic careers go off in decidedly oddball directions for one reason or another but with the singular exception of Neil Young’s infamous genre experiments in the 1980’s that saw him bouncing willy-nilly from synth-pop to rockabilly to country to the blues, I can’t think of anyone whose career path has veered off into areas as unexpected as that of filmmaker David Gordon Green. He first burst on the scene in 2000 with “George Washington,” a gorgeous, lyrical and haunting meditation on youth, life and loss that was among the most striking cinematic debuts of the decade and which immediately earned him comparison with no less a figure as Terrence Malick himself. Over the next few years, he would follow that film up with the equally celebrated likes of 2002’s “All the Real Girls,” 2004’s “Undertow” (which was co-produced by none other than Malick himself) and 2007’s “Snow Angels” and while none of those films exactly burned brightly at the box-office, they were all substantial artistic achievements and solidified his standing as one of the most inventive and intriguing new filmmakers around. Then his career path changed sharply when, thanks to college friend Danny McBride (who appeared in “All the Real Girls“), he was put in contact with Judd Apatow at just the moment when he was first being hailed as the new King of Comedy and Hollywood was ready, willing and able to buy anything that had his name on it. As a result, Green was given the job of directing a screenplay Apatow was producing involving a couple of stoners on the run from some crooked cops that they witnessed committing a murder. This might have seemed like insanity at the time but the film, 2008’s “Pineapple Express” turned out to be a $100 million hit at the box-office. Even more amazingly, unlike most other indie directors who enter the Hollywood machine and wind up getting chewed up in the process, Green made a film that fit within the parameters of a broad-based stoner comedy while still making it as distinctive and formally fascinating as his earlier efforts.Thanks to the success of “Pineapple Express,” not to mention “East Bound & Down,” the HBO comedy series about a washed-up baseball pitcher that he and McBride collaborated on to much additional acclaim, Green found himself in the position of essentially being able to do virtually any project that caught his eye and the studios, looking for another “Pineapple”-sized hit, would be fighting each other for the chance to produce it. His name was mentioned in conjunction with any number of potential projects (the most intriguing of which was a still-possible remake of Dario Argento’s hallucinatory horror classic “Suspiria”) but if one had to bet cold hard cash on what this project would actually take the form of, it is likely that few would have come up with the notion of an elaborate comedy-fantasy that would blend the stoner silliness of “Pineapple Express” with a homage to such classically cheesy sword-and-sorcery films from the early 80’s as “Conan the Barbarian,” “Yor-Hunter from the Future” and the immortal “Krull,” feature expensive digital creations blended with deliberately hokey practical effects and include a cast consisting of such familiar faces as “Pineapple” co-stars McBride and James Franco and Zooey Deschanel (who had one of her first significant roles in “All the Pretty Girls”) and no less than recent Oscar winner Natalie Portman in a rare foray into flat-out comedy. However, that is exactly what he has given us in “Your Highness” and in the hands of virtually any other filmmaker, I suspect that such a strange combination of elements might have resulted in another disaster like “Land of the Lost,” a wildly expensive and exceptionally ill-conceived film (also costarring McBride, it should be noted) that was too bland for the hipster crowd, too insular and self-amused for the general audience and too gratingly unfunny for everybody. As it turns out, even in his hand, "Your Highness" is pretty much exactly like that--a grating and only fitfully amusing exercise in silliness in which the funniest joke on display is that Green and company were able to convince Universal Pictures to fork over a presumably enormous budget for something this ridiculous in the first place. And yet, even though it is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, it does exert a certain strange fascination that carries it along for at least a little while and demonstrates that while Green is indeed capable of making a very bad movie, at least he has the common decency to make a singularly bad movie instead of a bland piece of cookie-cutter nonsense destined to be forgotten almost as soon as it finishes. Long after most of the bad movies I see have blessedly evaporated from my mind, this one will still be there and if there is any justice in the world, it will also remain lodged in the minds of everyone responsible for its existence.
Set in the typical cinematic medieval landscape populated by sprawling castles, dual moons and lavishly appointed soundstages as far as the eye can see, the film opens with Prince Thadeous (McBride), a slovenly, lazy and generally repellent oaf, facing death by hanging for performing unseemly acts with the wife of a local midget king in what I can only assume is some kind of crackpot homage to the music video for the Men Without Hats classic “The Safety Dance“ (lacking the wit and crack choreography, of course). After escaping, via one of the few sight gags that actually inspires some laughs, he and his loyal manservant Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) return home just in time to witness the return of Fabious (Franco), his brave, decent and kindly older brother who is next in line to rule the kingdom, from yet another perilous and heroic quest. This time around, he has brought with him Belladonna (Deschanel), a lovely and virginal lass who has been imprisoned since infancy by the vile wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) as part of a diabolical plan set to come to fruition in a few days time--something about her giving birth to a dragon that will help him rule the world or some such nonsense. Fabious plans to marry Belladonna himself the very next day but the ceremony is inevitably crashed by Leezar and his minions who steal Belladonna back by creating a maelstrom of violence and chaos that kills extras right and left but which inexplicably leaves the main characters merely stunned.
Naturally, Fabious prepares to set off on yet another heroic quest to save Belladonna, her virtue and the world, more or less in that order, and this time around, the king (Charles Dance) insists that Thadeous go along as well in order to finally prove himself as a man. Frankly, Thadeous is more interested in staying behind and getting stoned but when his father threatens to banish him from the kingdom for good, he reluctantly joins up with his brother and brings Courtney along for good measure. Along the way, they meet up with a wizard who offers mystical visions in exchange for certain unmentionable acts, a tribe of naked women who turn out to be more trouble than they are worth and any number of bizarre creatures including (but not limited to) a horny minotaur that takes a fancy to Courtney. They also come across Isabel (Portman), a tough and determined warrior on a quest of her own who has the great misfortune to catch the eye of Thadeous, even after she has beaten him to a pulp on at least one occasion, making her an instant heroine to most members of the viewing audience.
The first couple of minutes of "Your Highness" contain a few amusing moments, especially if one is familiar with the films being goofed on, and it briefly seems as if Green has managed to pull such a demented project off despite the odds. Unfortunately, after those first few minutes, it quickly becomes evident that instead of giving us the contemporary equivalent of the comedy classic "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," he and co-writers McBride and Ben Best have instead presented us with an elongated version of one of those "Saturday Night Live" sketches that appear towards the end of the show when there is no longer any worry about potential audience dropouts. Then again, at least some of those sketches have the common decency to have some kind of actual comedic premise or point to them--not necessarily a successful one by any means but at least something that they can point to and say "See, we weren't just half-assing this thing--there really was a point to it!" In the case of "Your Highness," however, it does feel like everyone involved is just half-assing it with absolutely no regard for whether any of it is working either in comedic or cinematic terms. Essentially, the film is one long string of scenes in which characters stand around in uncomfortable-looking outfits and either spout mock-heroic dialogue that eventually disintegrates into allegedly amusing vulgarity involving filthy-mouthed dialogue (everyone involved seems to think that the idea of Thadeous dropping the F-bomb in the middle of a sentence was pure comedic gold and the film there trots that particular gag out in nearly every scene) or sexually depraved sight gags involving things like the severed genitalia of a minotaur. (This is not to say that there isn't comedic promise to be had with the severed genitalia of a minotaur but let me just say that this film drains that particular pickle quite quickly and then continues to shake it long after it has gone dry.)
The result is a seemingly endless comedic black hole that feels like a cross between one of Mel Brooks' lesser vehicles and what one might get from a bunch of frat boys with a video camera, after-hours access to the local Medieval Times and the conviction that any situation is automatically hilarious if the characters are all stoned. The difference is that those frat boys presumably wouldn't have had access to the elaborate visual effects on display here but while the various creatures, magical lightning bolts and whatnot are certainly loud and flashy enough, they only once again underscore the long-held point that, with the notable exception of "Ghostbusters" and a few others, that massive special effects and comedy rarely mix well. If "Your Highness" had somehow embraced its ludicrously over scaled nature in the way that "Holy Grail" did with its own poverty-level budget (which led to such now-legendary bits as replacing the horses with coconuts), it might have had something to work with but the screenplay is as all thumbs with that particular conceit as it is with everything else.
While Green was able on "Pineapple Express" to find a way of blending his quirky indie sensibilities with the requirements of a major studio action-comedy in ways that managed to satisfy the mass audience while still retaining the unique voice that he had cultivated through his earlier films, he is completely at sea here--the comedy scenes never develop the kind of rhythm needed for a farce of this type and the action sequences are garish and confusingly staged messes that not even the contributions of ace cinematographer and longtime Green collaborator Tim Orr can make sense of at any given point. Perhaps as a result of being overwhelmed with the prospect of having what once must have seemed like a simple lark spiraling out of control before his eyes, Green appears to have simply let his actors do whatever they wanted and the resulting clash of styles and personalities adds yet another nail to the film's coffin. In previous screen appearances, Danny McBride has shown himself to be the American equivalent of Russell Brand--seen in small supporting roles in films like "Pineapple Express" or "Tropic Thunder" or half-hour doses on "East Bound & Down," he can be hilarious but when he takes center stage, as in the like of the would-be cult favorite "The Foot Fist Way," he quickly becomes an incredibly grating and annoying presence. Here, he is front-and-center for virtually the entire running time and he soon grows so obnoxious that viewers may find themselves involuntarily flinching every time he walks into the frame. For her part, Natalie Portman does her role in a completely serious and straightforward manner that might have yielded some comedic gold if everyone else was playing by those rules but since she is the only one to do so, she just seems stiff and uncomfortable throughout. Then again, she seems relaxed and poised when compared to James Franco, who goes through the entire film with the exact same deer-in-the-headlights look that he sported a few weeks ago when he was hosting the Oscars, though he at least had better lines there. The only one of the stars who comes off remotely well here is Zooey Deschanel and that is largely because she isn't called upon to do anything more than look fetching and winsome throughout despite the circumstances.In the end, the biggest problem with "Your Highness," a film that is chock-full of such things, is that it is never at any point close to being as amusing or entertaining as the movies that it is trying to goof on. Sure, things like "Krull" and "Beastmaster" are pretty dumb and cheesy but they are at least dumb and cheesy in a fun way and more importantly, they at least provided viewers with at least some entertainment--if I had to choose between seeing any of this year's big superhero epics or a restored version of "Krull," I for one wouldn't hesitate for a second to get my Glaive on. "Your Highness," on the other hand, is a botch from start to finish and while I still regard David Gordon Green as one of the best young American filmmakers working today, the sad truth is that there isn't enough pot in the world to make this thing seem even remotely amusing. Of course, I am sure that some fanboys will be writing to me complaining about my review (hell, I got a complaint letter about my "Sucker Punch" review from someone who actually agreed with me) and saying that I am taking it way too seriously and that I should look at it as being in the spirit of an old Cheech & Chong movie. Hey, I am even willing to go along with that assessment but if that is true, did the C&C movie in question have to be "Yellowbeard"?
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