So what the hell happened to David Gordon Green?
I know, his name is not the first one that will pop off the screen for the average viewer of the sort-of-tolerable medieval pothead comedy Your Highness. The movie is a star vehicle (if you can call it that) for Danny McBride, the shambling, misanthropic comic who co-wrote and co-stars in it. It also features recent Oscar nominee/host James Franco, recent Oscar winner Natalie Portman, and noted British Shakespearean Charles Dance, all of whom could reasonably be asked how they stumbled into such a crude, sniggering mess of a movie. But Green, the director of it all, is the one who gets me.
This is the same David Gordon Green whose oblique indie dramas George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003) made him a Sundance darling and established him as an interesting new Southern voice. He followed them with Undertow and Snow Angels, which worked similar small-town turf to moderate acclaim.
And then came Pineapple Express, the 2008 stoner action-comedy written by Seth Rogen and produced by Judd Apatow. It was the first of Green’s movies that he didn’t at least co-write, and his taciturn style was an odd fit for the loudmouth Rogen-Apatow groove. Still, the film grossed over $100 million worldwide, so here’s Green a few years later, with another marijuana movie aimed solidly at adolescent males (and/or anyone who still thinks like one).
To be fair, Green’s involvement is more personal than it might appear—according to an interview with New York magazine, he was college buddies with McBride, and the two of them used to play a game of coming up with ridiculous movie titles and concepts. “So once ‘Your Highness’ came up,” Green says, “and Danny goes, ‘It’s about a prince that smokes weed and fights dragons.’ We’d write them down and, the millions of times that we’d play this game, this was the one idea that didn’t end up being peed on in the bathroom floor.”
Well, okay. I guess if Your Highness is the best idea that came out of those sessions, we should be glad for the ones that got flushed away. What McBride, Green, and company have really produced is a somewhat updated version of those later, lazier Mel Brooks movies, like History of the World Part I or Spaceballs. It is a foul-mouthed but generally good-natured spoof, with more masturbation jokes and homoerotic innuendo than a boys’ high school locker room. When the script actually refers to an attack by nearly naked female warriors as a “booby trap,” it is difficult not to admire its commitment to a sort of old-school juvenility.
The story, if you care, features two princes—the dashing, heroic Fabious (Franco) and his shlubby, drug-addled brother, Thadeous (McBride)—on a quest to rescue a damsel in distress (Zooey Deschanel) from ritualistic impregnation by a dastardly wizard (Justin Theroux). Along the way, there are mythological monsters and a handful of action sequences staged with a reasonably deft hand. (Green consulted Guillermo del Toro for advice on creature effects, which inevitably include a sizable Minotaur penis.) There’s plenty to be offended by, if you’re so inclined: Jokes about rape and child molestation are par for the course. But the film’s goofiness is its modest saving grace. As clunky as many of the gags are, some of them still work. Like it or not, a man in a full suit of armor falling down a flight of stairs is pretty much always funny.
McBride, known for the low-budget karate comedy The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound & Down, is his usual boorish, barely sympathetic self. The ongoing punchline of his persona is that he’s a loser who is convinced he is actually a misunderstood winner—that the world merely has yet to appreciate his greatness. But a little of his contemptuous sloth goes a long way, so it’s a good thing he’s paired with the irrepressible Franco, whose sunny cluelessness gives the film some much-needed ballast.
Franco is a charismatic performer who seems forever in search of a movie that can effectively channel his energy. This isn’t it, but he’s still fun to watch. Likewise Portman, who is much more entertaining and also more believable as an arrow-slinging superwarrior than she was as a demented ballerina. She shows up something like halfway through the film, and is the main reason it’s worth sticking around for the second half.
Still, the movie deserves no praise other than faint. Like a lot of mildly diverting ensemble fare, Your Highness looks like it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch. It is easy to imagine Green, McBride, and Franco passing a bong around and cracking themselves up. But as far as sword-and-shield comedy goes, the film is closer to Robin Hood: Men in Tights than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Not that Green apparently cares. When the New York interviewer asked Green if it bothered him that his Wikipedia entry now lists him as best known for two dope-smoking comedies, he replied, “I just want it to say f--king weirdo.”
Fair enough. Your Highness makes a reasonable case for that, if not much else.