Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2011

High and low

'Your Highness' is an inexplicable misfire from one of our most talented filmmakers

Your Highness
Universal Pictures
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Danny McBride and Ben Best
Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Rasmus Hardiker, Justin Theroux, Toby Jones, Zooey Deschanel, Damian Lewis and Charles Dance
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes
(out of four)

Watching Your Highness is like seeing a comedian absolutely bomb on stage in front of an unforgiving audience.

We've all been there - when every single joke is falling on its face. The comedian knows he's bombing as well as the audience does, but the show goes on. Quickly the room starts to get uncomfortable, and you start to feel genuine embarrassment for the guy on stage, as if it's you up there and not some stranger. Everyone in the room is feeling the same thing. And there's nothing anyone can do about it but endure. Endure until the guy finally finishes his set.

In the case of Your Highness, that uncomfortable feeling lasts for one hundred and two long minutes. You'd have to imagine that all the talented people who contributed to the making of the film know they've got a stinker on their hands, but what can else can they do? Here they are trying to make a stoner version of something Mel Brooks or Monty Python might have done, and what they wind up with is another Year One.

I'm sure all this must have sounded better at the time. There are moments of such spectacular absurdity that we can only lament the sheer awfulness of the movie surrounding them. You can see how this may have sounded good while it was being conceived (aided, perhaps, by the presence of chemical substances). Your Highness basks in the ridiculous, the bawdy and the obscene, and resists any semblance of sanity or restraint. That description would also fit the previous collaboration between Danny McBride, James Franco and director David Gordon Green - 2008's Pineapple Express, which succeeded in every way that Your Highness fails.

That's what I find so curious and so disappointing about the film. If Green's last film is any indication, this one would seem to be right in his wheelhouse. But where Pineapple Express was inspired - the way the film built a tactfully ironic and clever web, each absurdity building on the next - Your Highness is spinning its wheels looking desperately for a laugh in between banal setpieces.

Usually that means somebody dropping an F-bomb or making a pointed reference to genitalia. Look, I like creative displays of profanity as much as the next guy - once again, see: Pineapple Express - but when it's used primarily as a crutch (in this case, in a film built largely on improvisation), you're taking all the fun out of it.

The film's ideas are promising enough. Medieval setting. A pair of mismatched warrior princes named Thadeous (Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco), who set out on a dangerous quest. Labyrinths, nymphs, wizardry, deliberately bad British accents, sexually aggressive minotaurs and the like. A virginal princess (Zooey Deschanel) rescued from a castle, then captured once again by an evil sorcerer with designs on impregnating her with a dragon. Come on - anyone with a sense of humor can see there's potential for good comedy in there.

And yet none of it plays funny. Well, almost none of it. One particular shot of the minotaur in a state of, shall we say, heat, is pretty amusing. But it would be so much more amusing if the rest of the scene were working as well as it thinks it is. (Or wishes it were.) Most of the time, it feels like the actors are standing around waiting for someone to say something funny. Which, in this movie, would be a neat trick.

I've been an unabashed fan of Green's work since he first broke onto the indie scene a decade or so ago with his debut, the poetic masterpiece George Washington. His early films, despite falling squarely in the typical indie milieu of small-town America, were unlike anyone else's; they were evocative and idiosyncratic, strange and meditative, honest and painful - and entirely unique.

I've been interested to see the progression of his career since then, from similar moody character pieces like All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, to big studio comedies like his last two efforts. After seeing Pineapple Express three years ago, I was impressed that he could make such a smooth transition, mastering a style that requires a deft directorial hand and strong comic timing.

I trust Your Highness is only a blip on the radar, but seeing this movie made me nostalgic for the filmmaker who once said he wanted his films to exist in their own separate category at the video store - and whose early films very well could have.

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