Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Charles Dance. Justin Theroux, Zooey Deschanel
(Universal; US theatrical: 8 Apr 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 8 Apr 2011 (General release); 2011)
Your Highness is the equivalent of a fart in church. It’s funny, but you feel really bad (REALLY BAD) for laughing at it. It’s like looking into a stoned 14 year olds comedy journal and discovering that the monologue he’s been working on for the last few months is nothing more than a string of gratuitous f-bombs and some random dick jokes - in other words, the output of Judd Apatow circa 2007. Rumored to be a totally improvised sword and sorcery spoof, and often feeling like it, this unusual diversion from director David Gordon Green (who obviously inhaled far too deeply on the set of the Pineapple Express) is really nothing more than an extended vacation of the cast and crew. As CG effects fill the screen, our stars spout silly lines meant to make little or no sense while everything plays like a sleazy Dungeons and Dragons game - and that’s meant to be a compliment.
The main plot follows a pair of brothers - the beloved and heroic Fabious (James Franco) and the lazy and slovenly Thadeous (Danny McBride) - as they serve their benevolent father, the King (Charles Dance). One day, upon returning from another successful conquest, the former announces his intent to be married. The apple of his often wandering eye is Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) and Fabious wishes an immediate ceremony. As narrative luck would have it, she is a virgin and perfect for the evil wizard Leezar’s (Justin Theroux) bizarre ritual. If he can impregnate her when the two moons merge (?), he will gain ultimate power over man. So he kidnaps the maiden and head to his tower. Grief stricken, Fabious heads out to rescue Belladonna. Much to his chagrin, Thadeous is sent as well. Along the way, they discover a band of traitors, tackle a few fabled creatures, and befriend a fierce female warrior named Isabel (Natalie Portman) who has her own beef with Leezar.
Your Highness is a true novelty in today’s Hollywood, and we don’t mean its third act reliance on a semi-erect minotaur penis to get the audience’s attention. This is a film that wallows in a level of scatology so severe that the Farrelly Brothers might as well give up on the subgenre for good. Yes, it’s uneven and scattered, striking targets hard when it hits while missing by medieval miles when it doesn’t, but it’s all in good fun…mostly. In Franco, McBride, and Portman, Green finds a trio of actors willing to go for broke to make a viewer laugh. That they don’t always succeed is the least of Your Highness’ concerns. Instead, everything is aimed at the codpiece, and when the bawdy nut shots arrive, we can’t help but snicker. It’s like the first dirty joke you ever heard - juvenile, sexually-oriented, and without a lick of redeeming social value…and still, you remember nearly pissing your pants in glee upon the punchline.
After being almost omnipresent from 2007 to 2009, McBride has stepped back and been more choosey with his projects. Like his character in the delightful TV series Eastbound and Down, Thadeous is a ridiculous rogue, an arrogant ass without a single reason to be so supercilious. He’s jealous of everyone around him, and yet seems to exist on a steady diet of avoiding anything remotely resembling responsibility. Sure, it’s more post-modern than renaissance fair, but then so is all of Your Highness. As a counterpart, Franco finds the right balance between clueless and clever. He’s got the look and the instantly likability, but Fabious has his flaws. He’s weirdly disconnected to those around him, and can’t see sabotage when it practically stabs him in the back. Sure, he can kill the marauding monster, but he’s not pure champion. Along with Portman’s sleek battle goddess and Theroux’s anti-villain villain, Your Highness has some definite high points.
It also lapses into a few lows - and again, we aren’t talking about the monster’s mythical dong. For all she has to do, including a simple song and dance number, Ms. Deschanel appears tossed in from another film all together. She’s almost too contemporary, too much like a indie chick trying to play regal that we see through the ruse. Similarly, much of the ancillary cast is shuttled into the background, only Thadeous’ trusted manservant Courtney (played with plenty of bowl cut relish by Rasmus Hardiker) showing any kind of solo moxie. Indeed, one does get the distinct impression that Green gathered up his buds, snagged a bunch of commercial cred cash, headed over to the UK, and declared it party time. As the recreational refreshments flowed freely, they shot a scene or two. If it made sense, great. If it didn’t…even better!
That being said, this is definitely more of a noble slip than a classic send-up. What’s missing is an unique knowledge of the source material. There is no attempt to satire Tolkein, to make the era part of the possible wit. Monty Python understood how to ground its goofiness in an aura of authenticity. Even with the lush location, Your Highness often feels like wrap-party held on a studio set, before the actual movie was even made. The lulls between laughs can be huge, and we are never truly invested in the outcome. Leezar could win and all we care about is if Green will show us the baby dragon birth. This is a film awash in massive missed opportunities. It’s also undeniably sidesplitting at times.
So if you don’t mind a little - nay, a slab of - guilt with your pleasure, if the constant barrage of curse words and crudities don’t turn your Puritanical perspective pale, Your Highness will work. It’s vulgar and vile, but also capable of great charms. Somewhere, in the back pew, near the exit, sits the young whippersnapper who decided to infiltrate the sacred cinematic temple of the mainstream comedy Lord with his errant bodily function, and for a moment, we are all aghast. But if, after the shock, you are secretly snickering to yourself, this is the braindead farce for you. There is nothing really wrong with Your Highness. There’s nothing really right about it either.