David Gordon Green, where have ye gone? Once the most promising and inspiring of indie filmmakers, directing such poignant American vignettes as George Washington, Undertow, and All the Real Girls, Green has lately turned over to crass stoner comedies. While that artistic about-face paid off with 2008’s Pineapple Express, Green’s newest gig, ‘Your Highness’—a send-up of doofy sword and sorcery flicks—takes similar farcical elements and makes a shambles of them.
All questions of Green’s slumming aside, Your Highness should have been a funny and fun movie. Instead, it’s a surprisingly legit looking flick whose script is so singlemindedly juvenile that it spends most of its time enunciating swear words and snickering over a gag involving a severed Minotaur’s penis. McBride and Green only use the R rating to pay lip service to frat-boy behavior and never target the flamboyance or rampant misogyny inherent in those 80′s loincloth sagas.
Enter Prince Thadious ( McBride), a doped and dopey royal layabout, languishing in the shadow of his prettier, more chivalric brother Fabious (James Franco). When the sexually frustrated sorcerer Lazar kidnaps Fabious’ love, Belladonna (Zoey Deschanel), the brothers reluctantly team to rescue the distressed damsel before Lazaar can impregnate her with the seed of a dragon. Along the way they gain allies in the vengeful beauty Isabelle (Natalie Portman), and Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), Thad’s long-suffering page. Damian Lewis and Toby Jones play a pair of turn-coat villains who have watched the Princess Bride too many times.
McBride, who was subversively hilarious as the stunted, narcissistic Kenny Powers on HBO’s Eastbound and Down, plays a neutered version of that character here. Thadeous is a douchebag headed for the only fantasy contrivance more tired than ‘with a mighty effort he leapt from the pit’, ‘he discovered, himself and stopped being such a sh!t.’ And yet, Green lets that transformation occur off-screen, denying the comedian even that minor angle to play. In place of character,McBride fearlessly mugs and leers at the camera, transforming even innocent phrases into aimed barbs dripping with self-righeousness, contempt, or cheerful bawdiness. It loses its novelty quickly.
Franco’s coiffed and clueless homoerotic warrior is funny enough but Zoey Deschanel doesn’t know much what to do with Belladonna, and her one inspired trait–that living in a tower has made her terminally out-of-touch–is never mined for real laughs. Natalie Portman is most fun as a warrior princess whose ‘beaver has burned with vengeance’ ever since her parent’s murder. Her role is mostly physical, although she keeps a straight-face and plays Isabelle as if she is incapable of an insincere thought. Justin Theroux does funny work by making his dark wizard nothing more than an uptight geek playing the ultimate LARP. Rasmus Hardiker has a thankless role; he’s not just the sidekick but also the only actor in the troupe who strives to make his character plausible. Hardiker, consider yourself thanked.
Mossy, shrouded fens and treacherous, looming mountain ranges jump to vivid life and the sets are vast and colorful, boasting world-building details like the battle arena in the Amazon camp or the dusky labyrinth with a fearsome beast lurking in the center. The monster design and fx also have a certain flair and detail to them that makes the film seem more legit than it really is. But, then ‘Highness’ remembers that it doesn’t take any of this seriously and defaults to the less interesting route of tired toilet comedy. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie so eager to sabotage itself.
The low spots? How about a bong-smoking muppet creature who endears at first, only to reveal he molested Franco’s Fabious as a boy. If that one doesn’t get your sensibilities, then there are numerous jokes had at the expense of little people and rape victims. We are only supposed to chuckle because it’s oh so naughty. This is the cinematic equivalent of Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown. Just as we head in for the moment of connection, the movie pulls itself out from under us and sends us tumbling down and out of the theater, disappointed that our ten bucks is gone with not even a good time to show for it.