Boobies and Violence and Wizards and Stuff in ‘Your Highness’

In the DVD commentary for Your Highness, we learn that the film had its genesis in a game. Not a video game or board game, mind you, which have been disturbingly viable options at the big studios, but a game that director David Gordon Green and co-writer/star Danny McBride used to play in film school: come up with a catchy title and then try to figure out the genre and story from there.

Your Highness was one such title; it was conceived those many years ago as a movie about a stoner knight going on a magical quest. By the time Green and McBride actually got the unlikely chance to make Your Highness, the story had evolved in focus if not sensibility. There are a few pot jokes in the final film, but it’s not Cheech and Chong Go Medieval; it’s more, as one of the filmmakers puts it, “stoner’s movie than stoner movie” — something stoners will enjoy, rather than a movie about stoners. The team’s previous film, Pineapple Express, was more of a love letter to weed; Your Highness is a love letter to cheesy ’80s fantasy films, the kind with, to quote Green, “boobies and violence and wizards and stuff.”

I’m as wary as anyone of I-love-the-’80s nostalgia-snark, but it turns out that the filmmakers’ love for this genre is what makes Your Highness work, far moreso than its tepid reviews and flaccid box office would suggest. McBride plays Thadeous, the layabout brother of Fabious (James Franco), a great warrior and hero of a faraway kingdom. Fabious intends to marry the beautiful, slightly dim Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), but she’s kidnapped on their wedding day by Leezar (Justin Theroux), an evil wizard who plans involving a cataclysmic magical event someone, possibly Leezar, has dubbed the Fuckening. Thadeous and Fabious embark on a quest to save her, encountering the usual barbarians, castles, minotaurs, and naked breasts.

The whole thing is a comedy version of fantasy movies like Krull or Excalibur, with McBride providing anachronistic swears and crudeness amidst more deadpan performances from the rest of the cast. It’s not a bad technique, but as a comedy, Your Highness isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as Pineapple Express. McBride and co-writer Ben Best aren’t as sharp as other Apatow-era screenwriters in terms of building scenes and writing involved dialogue; their script is more functional and amusing (if consistently so) than truly inspired. Many jokes depend on McBride’s profane jerkiness, played with the same real-world bluntness he uses on Eastbound and Down.

The real difference is the film’s setting, and as homage to sword-and-sorcery pictures, Your Highness is surprisingly credible. On the commentary, the filmmakers insist that they sought to avoid outright spoofery, and it shows: the creatures are well-designed, the action sequences are sincerely cool (in a geeky fantasy movie sort of way), and the relationship between Thadeous and Fabious has real humanity to it. McBride does play his usual selfish boor, but his hurt feelings and sense of inferiority to his handsome, brave brother are touching in their childishness.

Franco makes the choice to play Fabious not as a preening himbo, but a prince with genuine nobility and love for his brother, which makes his utter earnestness sweetly funny rather than an object of easy derision. Natalie Portman, who turns up late in the film as a fierce warrior, also understands the value of playing it straight in contrast to the movie’s inherent silliness.

Your Highness isn’t quite hilarious or exciting enough to be a rewatchable classic (though genre fans should love it); the commentary hints at limitations on the filmmakers’ vision — anything he and Green have ever done, McBride says, has been something they were “just barely” able to do. In this case, studio backing meant the realization of their fluky dream project, but also meant scaling down a first draft that would’ve cost $200 million to something that could be made for “comedy money” — $50 million or so.

This may explain the slim deleted scenes, which only amount to an extra eight minutes (or maybe some were squirreled away for Blu-Ray exclusives; I only saw the DVD version). The most notable excised material (apart from a few funny lines added back into the only slightly longer “extended, unrated” version) is a love song between Franco and Deschanel called “Shitty Moons”, sort of a profane take on “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail — funny, but perhaps a bit spoofier than the rest of the film.

Further unrealized ideas were probably too expensive to shoot at all, and technical limitations probably also muted the improvisational style that Green, McBride, and Franco were all able to utilize so well in Pineapple. Here, the casual riffing feels responsible for a few funny touches, rather than more freewheeling hilarity of a Judd Apatow or Adam McKay movie; it’s probably tricky to turn attention to shooting take after take when wrangling extras, sets, effects, and a mechanical bird inspired by Bubo from Clash of the Titans.

That it takes time to create its own Bubo, though, is indicative of the geek-tastic touches that make the movie so much fun. If the commentary track highlights the production’s limitations, it also showcases the craft of Your Highness: watching a carriage chase or climactic battle with the commentary obscuring the audio, you notice just how neat-looking and well-assembled this stuff is. The sensitivity that makes David Gordon Green such a strong chronicler of human relationships in movies like Snow Angels or All the Real Girls also makes him a savvy genre-hopper, able to find sincerity in silliness (and vice versa).

Your Highness may sound like a stoner romp, but it’s a movie as in love with B-movies as anything by Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez.

RATING 6 / 10