Silver Screen: Your Highness ***1/2
Indie director David Gordon Green's career has taken a strange turn. Green made an impressive debut in 2000 with the slow-burning drama George Washington, about a group of children who accidentally murder one of their own. He followed that with the ploddingly realistic romance All the Real Girls, the grit-smeared Cormac McCarthy-esque family saga Undertow, and the melancholy and foreboding Snow Angels. His films are marked by powerful but unflashy imagery, weighty silences, and meditative pacing that flouts a conventional dramatic arc.
But in 2008, Green, whose previous movies were somber and, a few moments in All the Real Girls aside, pretty humorless, took a hard left turn into comedy. Not James L. Brooks-style dramedy, either, nor the comedic equivalent to the quiet slice-of-life movies he'd made before. No, Green's next project was Pineapple Express, an unrepentant stoner comedy that started off as a goofy action romp and picked up speed on the way toward incredibly violent slapstick.
Pineapple Express reteamed him with Danny McBride; McBride made his film debut in All the Real Girls and had subsequently become something of a cult favorite himself. Green then went on to direct several episodes of HBO's excellent, off-kilter McBride-starring series Eastbound and Down.
So, theoretically, all these unlikely developments in Green's career should pave the way for his involvement in yet another stoner comedy, the medieval-themed Your Highness. Yet even with that progression in mind, it's still tough to comprehend that the man responsible for the shattered idylls of Snow Angels and George Washington and the Biblical conflicts of Undertow would make a big-budget fantasy movie featuring a talking mechanical bird, a child-molesting magic puppet, a priapic Minotaur, and a nudity-filled battle with a five-headed snakebeast. Your Highness is big and expensive and ridiculous, consistently sophomoric, unabashedly lowbrow. It's also pretty awesome.
Green's moon-faced comedy muse McBride is back as Thadeous, the shiftless and irresponsible younger brother to the brave prince Fabious (James Franco). Thadeous is pretty much an amalgamation of every character McBride has ever played-- like Will Ferrell, the oft-mulleted actor usually plays his particular variety of impulsive, clueless oaf-- incongruously transported to days of yore. He's sullen and fussy when he learns that his overachieving brother has returned from a quest with both the head of a slain cyclops and beautiful young maiden Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) as trophies. But, disastrously, before Fabious can wed the sheltered and airy-- but did we mention beautiful?-- young maiden, she's kidnapped by a nefarious but bumbling wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), who intends to implant her with the seed of a dragon to complete a long-foretold prophecy.
At the king's insistence, Thadeous is forced to join Fabious's quest to reclaim Belladonna. The bulk of the movie is an archetypal, episodic quest-narrative warped by prurience and buffoonery. Imagine if The Princess Bride was reconceived by a drug-addled sex offender and you get the idea. And I mean that in a good way.
Much of the humor in Your Highness comes from the garish incongruities: the transposition of Chaucerian English with modern-day profanity, the elaborate battles and effects sequences with loose, improvisational dialogue. The funniest moments of the film are, as usual, Green's trippy flights of fancy, like the slow-motion shots of McBride and his pals getting stoned and gleefully terrorizing a flock of sheep by chasing them around a meadow.
No matter how bizarre the proceedings get, the excellent ensemble cast manages to make it work. McBride sticks to doing what he does best, and the often-grating Franco is admirably game. Natalie Portman does nice work as the movie's lone straight man, so to speak, the only warrior in the story who isn't utterly clueless. The scene stealer in the movie, however, is Tropic Thunder writer Theroux as Leezar, a neurotic, sarcastic, repellent wizard who favorably recalls one of the funniest antagonists of all time, The Venture Brothers' nemesis the Monarch. Not to be overlooked, however, is British actor Rasmus Hardiker as Thadeous's put-upon squire Courtney.
Caveat: While I was cackling at Your Highness pretty much from start to finish, nearly a third of the crowd in the not-too-full-to-begin-with theater walked out in disgust. Not everyone, apparently, found Theroux's frequent references to the ancient sex ritual called "the Fuckening" as hilarious as I did. In fact, I think I might have been the only person in the theater who seemed more than remotely amused. That said, the last two times I've been the sole source of laughter in a theater full of stone-faced prudes was at The Big Lebowski and Very Bad Things, so maybe, as Thadeous would say, these common folk needest remove the sticks from thine asses. Verily.