by Paul Deines
That’ll teach me to promise a fresh entry every month. Live and learn, I suppose, but we made it, didn’t we? Bloodied and irritable, but we’re here in 2011 for the next Profile in Batshittery.
Profiles in Batshittery is a series where I break down a train-wreck film, one with style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially. The type of film that still draws me in when I happen upon it late night on TV. I choose one batshit classic per year, beginning in 2013 and moving back year by year.
This week, to prove I’m not going easy on myself, I’m discussing David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, starring Danny McBride, James Franco and Natalie Portman.
David Gordon Green, a decade earlier, was the darling of the American indie movie scene. His first full-length feature, George Washington, is such an off-kilter opus that I think I could see it twenty times and not be able to penetrate its meaning. Focusing on a group of teenagers bound together and broken by a tragedy in a desolate southern town, George Washington is equal parts Terrence Malick, John Hughes and Harmony Korine. It’s a singular work, impressive but, to me, not lovable. Specific scenes are transcendent, from an ill-fated pool rescue to a young man confronting a girl about dumping his best friend. It’s spellbinding in how unadorned and honest they are; then everything turns super-dreamlike. The final surreal half-hour feels alike another film altogether, though it’s no less compelling.
Green went on to make a series of slightly higher budget films like All the Real Girls and Undertow, both critically beloved. Then in 2008, he teamed with Seth Rogen, James Franco and Danny McBride to direct the rapturously funny stoner crime comedy Pineapple Express. It reinvigorated the Cheech and Chong-style weed movie and introduced America to MIA:
Pineapple Express walks a fine line of shaggy humor, down-rent production design and odd extreme violence. It’s a master class in low comedy. Green went on the direct a good chunk of episodes for McBride’s HBO series Eastbound and Down (a series that makes me chuckle but some regard as a major artistic achievement) and in 2011 convinced Universal to bankroll a massively expensive fantasy epic about two high knights rescuing a maiden from an evil magician.
Well, Pineapple Express was a hit. Lightning always strikes twice, right?
What it Delivered …
An only occasionally funny hard-R picture that looks at once obscenely pricey and super cheap. Your Highness is stacked with a cavalcade of English ringers in supporting roles. There’s Tywin Lannister, Brody from Homeland, that other Truman Capote. There are sequences in the movie that look like – well, maybe not Lord of the Rings, but definitely one of the Narnia sequels. There are even some snazzy practical effects that remind one of Ray Harryhausen.
What it lacks is a coherent script.
Your Highness is the story (that word doesn’t sound correct) of two royal brothers, the galant Fabious (Franco) and the goofus Thadeous (McBride). Thadeous’s days consist of getting high, bedding maids and chasing sheep. Fabious embarks on quests, and as the movie starts he returns from such a quest with a new bride Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). On their wedding day, though, Belladonna is kidnapped by the nefarious wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), who intends to fulfill a prophecy which states that a wizard deflowering a virgin under some celestial confluence will produce a dragon. Fabious resolves to rescue her, and his father the king (Charles Dance) insists Thadious accompany him. At a certain point, a wandering adventurer called Isabel (Natalie Portman) joins them. That’s about it.
What Works and What Doesn’t…
Best to start with what doesn’t, which is primarily that the film opens with a gag involving a sexual assault and the central plot involves our heroes questing to prevent a ritualized rape. All the scenes involving this intended violation are not so much offensive as dispiriting. Even if one were to find the subject of rape comical, this movie would not be the touchstone for its comic potential. The victim, as played by Deschanel, is mostly oblivious or confused about her danger. Later a spell is cast on her to make her more willing, resulting in several scenes the actress probably wishes would disappear down the memory hole.
Some of the scenes involving Theroux’s Leezar kind of work, though. There’s an early interaction between him and Belladonna that rings true. Leezar wheedles his way into Belladonna’s cell (through a bit of shapeshifting) and proceeds to tell her how Fabious has been unfaithful, is riddled with VD and, anyway, she’d be totally better off with Leezar with his castle and his magic:
Leezar is one of those awful socially-uncomfortable dudes who tries to break down a girl’s self-esteem and convince her that he’s the best she can do. As character types go in Your Highness, that’s about as clever as it comes. But I enjoy that gambit, which sloughs away in later sequences as Theroux mostly just shouts the word “Fuckening!” while trying to mount Deschanel.
The only other female presence (besides Leezar’s wenches and about a hundred topless acolytes of the Marteetee – more on that later) is Portman, and she is about the best thing in Your Highness. Fresh off an Academy Award win, Portman seems determined to squander that good will in the most committed fashion. Seeking revenge for her murdered family, a running joke in the film (one that borders on clever) is that Isabel has wandered in from a much more serious film. Her set jaw and fierce eyes reveal a pain that has codified into stone determination. Like, say, Andre Braugher in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she’s often the funniest person onscreen by assiduously refusing to joke around.
The jokes, such as they are, rarely land. There’s a dire early sequence involving a township of little people who fail to hang McBride because – get this – their scaffold is too short. For some reason, Toby Jones has the nethers of a Ken doll. Scores of gags rely on McBride shouting either “fuck” or “shit” with an effete inflection. These aggressively laughless stretches sink Your Highness and overshadow the bits that work, and there are some bright spots.
Unfortunately, the best gags center on gay panic humor. Perhaps because I’m a straight white guy, this type of humor does not bother me too much. As the gay community gains more purchase our cultural and political dialogues, jokes about straight male fear of being though gay become more toothless. They mock homophobia rather than homosexuality; at least, that’s my read, which might well be the product of privilege. Anyway, the teenager-girl friendship between McBride and Franco is actually quite funny, with McBride playing with his giddily brother’s sword and becoming jealous of Fabious’s mechanical bird friend. Scenes like this one have a goofy brilliance:
I also love Damian Lewis’s quiet yearning for Franco, a dynamic played mostly (forgive the expression) straight but which builds to a wonderfully awkward final interchange.
The most unnerving scene in the picture, though, is probably my favorite. It also deals with a sexual assault (which I’m aware I decried a scant six paragraphs ago) involving a creepy Henson-esque puppet called the Wise Wizard. This fey Yoda with a glowing brain has assisted Fabious on quests since the knight was a boy and is clearly a withered corpulent pedophile:
So, yes, that’s horribly offensive, but at least it delivers on its juvenile snickering. Your Highness wants to be transgressive but mostly fails to accomplish this with a barrage of naughty words and occasional flesh. The Wise Wizard scene is just so wonderfully repugnant it can’t help but make you laugh; the scene perfectly offends all the sensibilities.
What’s So Batshit about It?
By most accounts, Your Highness’s story (screenplay was co-written by McBride and Ben Best) was the product of a drinking game. Yet, it’s so fucking expensive-looking at times. I think this is the reason audiences and critics hated it so vociferously; it just looked like a major waste of resources.
Special effects are never funny, and if you want an example of Your Highness misfiring in a nonsensical bloated way, look no further than the aforementioned Marteetee scene. Disconnected from the rest of the movie, it’s mostly a device to show tons of topless ladies (I’m fine with this) and introduce the Portman character (also okay). That said, the weird lady-centric cabal led by a shirtless androgyn (John Fricker) who can produce a hydra with his hand … it just makes you rub your temples (below clip is NSFW):
There’s a lot of that video effects nonsense in the early magic sequences involving Leezar, and some during the climax too. It’s dispiriting really, to think how much money was spent on a half-baked (sorry) idea constructed by an inebriated McBride, Franco and Green.
Elsewhere in the picture, though, we see wonderful practical effects like the aforementioned Wise Wizard, the blinking labyrinth and its well-endowed Minotaur. These parts are more amusing, in part because they’re better written and in part because they look charmingly handmade. When Your Highness stops trying to be The Hobbit and acts like Krull, it fosters some good will. It seems less like a train wreck and more like a batshit spectacle.
Can I Recommend It?
I’d love to say this a misbegotten gem, but in good faith I don’t think I can. Your Highness is not as terrible as its reputation, though. In fact, I think its dire rep might help it. I was hopeful the first time I saw this movie and downright enraged when it ended. Rewatching it a couple years later, I was shocked by how funny certain parts were. Nearly every joke involving the severed minotaur penis is a howler in my book. Ditto the brain-damaged grin Franco keeps flashing throughout the picture. His absurd love for that mechanical bird. I genuinely laughed.
And this was not even David Gordon Green’s low point. That came the next year with the bleak Jonah Hill vehicle, The Sitter. Since then, he’s returned to form with more indie fare like Prince Avalanche and Joe. Franco and McBride rebounded in 2013 with This Is the End. Theroux went all prestige at HBO. Portman had Thor (and the Sisyphean effort that is Jane Got a Gun). Everyone survived; that might be the best you can say.
Next on Profiles in Batshittery, we’re all heading to hell as I discuss Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2010 nightmare Valhalla Rising.