REVIEW: Vulgarity Trumps Talent in Your Highness
A medieval genre goof of impressive physical scale and disproportionately modest comic ambitions, as an entertainment animal, Your Highness is disappointing where it counts. All talk, you might say. Hung like a gerbil? Conceived and co-written by Eastbound and Down star Danny McBride, the film gets so involved in crafting bigger and badder dick jokes (eventually one literally hangs around McBride's neck) that it loses sight of the serious business of making us laugh.
A glazed grin seems more what McBride and director David Gordon Green had in mind. But then self-branded "stoner comedies" seem antithetical to me: What that label suggests now is not an instant, stoner-anointed classic but a comedy that happens to be made by stoners. Your Highness announces its intentions straight away, with a title sequence of a kind of illuminated manuscript being defaced, Perez Hilton-style, with penises and profanity. That contrast -- the puffy high tones of medieval fantasy punctured by the flatly vulgar and colloquial -- is the film's central comic vein, one McBride taps it like it's never been tapped before.
As Thadeous, McBride plays a slightly tempered version of the delusional egotist he seems to know down to the follicles of his mullet. Overshadowed by his brother Prince Fabious (James Franco), a terminal conqueror with a big heart and a new fiancée named Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), Thadeous loafs about with his attaché Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). Belladonna, whom Fabious rescued from years of captivity at the hands of the evil magician Leezar (Justin Theroux), is recaptured on their wedding day. Fabious sets out on a quest to save her, and Thadeous is impressed upon to come along. The important thing, naturally, is to reach Belladonna before Leezar makes good on his threat to plunder her virginity into the next dimension.
Along the way there's a wise old wizard who extracts a hand-job for his services; a betrayal in the inner circle that reveals one member's (Toby Jones) lack of a member; and a fortuitous encounter with a sharp-shooting traveler (Natalie Portman) who joins Fabious's quest to destroy Leezar. It's especially fun to watch Franco and Portman committing to the wind-whipping glamour shots and implausible dialogue with a seriousness that's occasionally tough to distinguish from the "real" thing. Theroux, a wickedly antic performer who always seems like a fresh idea in a comic part -- it's those matinee symmetries -- is the only one who pulls off the film's dedicated vulgarity with any panache.
The others have ample opportunity: Rarely has profanity been showcased to such comprehensive effect. Like an artist with a favorite subject, McBride singles out certain words for a kind of lexical portraiture, availing them of every textural nuance and shading that timing, tone, and context can offer. If that's enough to get you there, see the film, by all means. But outside of the limited novelty of the performances and sometimes enervating distraction of the fights and chases and CGI combat set pieces, the humor -- and the film's idea of what counts as humor -- feels stingy and stubbornly constrained, daring you to drop out instead of inviting you in.
McBride has said he and Green set out to "make the movie that we would have died to see when we were 13 years old." That makes sense, both because it suggests that the ideal audience is a two-person demographic lost to the time-space continuum, and it confirms the feeling I had of watching a movie that just wants to show you its dick, and is either not interested or not capable of making anything more exciting happen.