David Gordon Green is going backwards. His first feature, George Washington, was a dazzling and insightful drama about children, and he followed that up with an equally intelligent look at twentysomething love and heartache in All the Real Girls. The one-two punch of Undertow and Snow Angels dealt with families and adult themes, and it seemed as if Green was both maturing as a filmmaker and hitting his stride in terms of being able to reliably replicate a kind of style: deliberately paced, gorgeously shot, keenly observed human dramas that were occasionally sprinkled with levity. This is not a bad kind of storyteller to be, and in fact, it’s pretty damn good. But then there was Pineapple Express, a turning point: it wasn’t just Green’s first comedy as a director, but his first film to regress along the aesthetic and emotional continuum along which he’d been happily moving toward mastery. Then he started directing “Eastbound & Down,” HBO’s absurdist dark comedy about a man-child operating completely free from reason or emotion. Now, with Your Highness, he’s gone back down to the level of children, but in the worst way. He’s made a puerile, empty, relentlessly dull comedy that wouldn’t even impress underachieving 14-year-olds were it not for the preponderance of breasts, penis jokes, and bizarrely strong homophobia. It’s hard to imagine who the film is even for, since the Internet provides much quicker access to all three, especially to teens who can’t get into an R-rated movie on their own. Your Highness is the emotional completion of an arc no one really saw coming, considering Green’s stunning early accomplishments. On its own, the film is merely a plodding, forgettable disappointment; coming from a man this talented, it’s a total failure.
The script’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t earn laughs, it expects them. Here’s an example: Thadeous (Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco) are brothers and princes in a faraway land that kind of resembles England in the Middle Ages as reconstructed with marginally cheap sets. The elder Fabious is in line for the throne, and he’s often accompanied on quests by Julie (Toby Jones), his aide. Thadeous hates Julie for reasons undisclosed, and when he sees him at the beginning of the film, he greets him with, “Hello, fucking Julie.” That’s not actually a joke, that’s a line a character can get away with after personality and history are established. Thadeous isn’t Kenny Powers, though, and it’s not enough to have McBride simply say “fuck” in a British accent that glides in and out of certain scenes. It’s lazy and more than a little smug, and indicative of the fact that Green and screenwriters McBride and Ben Best (also of “Eastbound and Down”) are not going to do much more than hope that viewers will recognize McBride from HBO and think it’s funny to hear him say this stuff on principle. Rather than work to craft funny or interesting scenes, the filmmakers merely prop up their actors, let McBride goof off, and move on to the next scene. Kevin Smith already proved that this trick only works once, if you’re lucky.
The central plot deals with the quest Thadeous and Fabious undertake to rescue Fabious’ true love, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), from the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), who has kidnapped her so that he can impregnate her on the night of the twin lunar eclipse, which will allow him to inseminate her with special seed that will let her birth a dragon. That event is referred to as The Fuckening. Leezar actually comes from a line of wizards who were thwarted years back in their own attempt to copulate and make a dragon, but since I’ve already spent more time explaining it than the film does (and have done so with slightly more clarity), you can probably ignore it. The real thrust is that Belladonna’s gone, and Thad and Fab have to find her, so they set off with Julie; Thad’s aide, Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker); and an assortment of knights.
The easiest parallel is Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights: both films share a similar sensibility and are aimed squarely at 14-year-olds. (They both even feature female leads with chastity belts, which lets the films get off on being withholding, playing a weird sexual game with the viewers hoping to achieve some kind of mental coital closure.) But while Brooks was guilty of trying too hard, Green doesn’t try at all. He’s a talented dramatist but absolutely dreadful at directing comedies, refusing to inject any sense of excitement or pace into the film. Jokes burble up and float away seemingly at random, and Green seems almost lost in his attempts to give the scenes structure or rhythm. The same thing plagued Pineapple Express, which featured one laugh-out-loud moment in two hours (ironically, involving McBride and a low-end Korean hatchback) and seemed almost stubbornly resistant to any kind of shape or energy. Your Highness runs 102 minutes but feels half an hour longer simply because Green goes through the motions without making them pop. Part of this is likely because he’s used to being able to use the frame to tell the story, allowing light and color and balance to communicate as much or more emotion as the characters and dialogue. But comedies like this are candy-colored train wrecks, acting as pure delivery devices for their inane plots, and without being able to tell a story through arresting visuals, Green settles for just letting the story putter along.
There’s a definite ironic/meta component as well, and though it doesn’t reach Brooksian levels (no one here pulls out the script to see what will happen), there’s an unmistakable air of mockery throughout, as if the cast and crew would never really bring themselves to make an actual medieval farce and are thus reduced to making a half-hearted one. Anything relating to actual plot, character, or jokes is treated with kid gloves. The only times the filmmakers commit are when you don’t want them to, as when Thad and Fab visit a wise old hermit who turns out to be a puppet who molested Fab as a boy and who requests a hand job for helping them out. Right as you start to find yourself wondering if this is indeed the same James Franco from 127 Hours and “Freaks and Geeks,” Fab reaches into the thing’s pants and starts working its mercifully unseen shaft. How the mighty do tumble.
Franco is in aloof prankster mode throughout, and McBride just acts like himself but with that bad accent. Natalie Portman eventually appears as Isabel, a fellow adventurer who joins Thadeous and Fabious on their quest. She doesn’t feel quite committed to anything that’s happening on screen; her level of engagement is approximately on par with something you’d find in a short film on Funny or Die, and indeed, Your Highness could potentially be trimmed down to the best 15-minute comedy that site has ever seen. The rest of the cast amiably lopes around. Deschanel can’t have more than twenty lines, while Jones and the criminally wasted Damian Lewis find a predictable end. Even Theroux doesn’t get much to do. It’s as if the scenes involving Leezar and Belladonna were all shot on the quick in a few days and then slid into the final product as an afterthought.
The real center here is McBride, who gallops about, curses up an anachronistic and mostly repetitive storm, and basically kills time. It’s impossible to overstate how random the film really feels: the opening titles, designed to look like a picture book, suddenly sprouts sketches of penises and breasts as names roll by. It’s one thing for a movie like Superbad to at least relate that to the story; here, they’re just boobies and wieners, tossed in because why not, that’s what the little boys are here to see, right? And maybe they are. But the rest of us want a hell of a lot more, and Your Highness isn’t the place to get it. Green’s gone back to the bottom; now it’s time for him to turn around.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.