Sunday, April 17, 2011

Your Highness / ** (R)

Thadeous: Danny McBride
Fabious: James Franco
Courtney: Rasmus Hardiker
Isabel: Natalie Portman
Leezar: Justin Theroux
Belladonna: Zooey Deschanel
Julie: Toby Jones
King Tallious: Charles Dance
Boremont: Damian Lewis

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Danny R. McBride & Ben Best. Running time: 102 min. Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, and some drug use).

Remember getting together with four or five of your closest junior high school friends in your parent’s basement, stocking up on Cheetos and Mountain Dew, pulling out your favorite Dungeons & Dragons character to do battle with the beasts of the land, and spending most of your time bitching about how when you’re older they’d all understand that you guys had it right all along; and all those parents and jocks who ridiculed you for wasting your time on kids stuff would see that true social skills amounted to nothing compared with knowing how to wield a broadsword with dice. Did you think those were the best years of your life? Are you still in you parent’s basement? Or have you graduated to LARPing on a regular basis? If so, you may think “Your Highness” is the best movie you’ve ever seen. If you’ve grown up just a little, you may want more out of your stoner/fantasy/action/comedy.

I’ll admit it. I was one of those geeks huddled in the basement clinging to a 20-sided dice like it held the secrets of the universe. I still drink the Dew. As such, I had high expectations going into the new Danny McBride movie “Your Highness”. I knew that David Gordon Green, who gave us the great stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express” from a couple years back, directed it. Green was also responsible for the discovery of McBride’s unique talent when he cast the funnyman in his indie romance “All the Real Girls”. I knew McBride and his writing partner from the HBO series “East Bound & Down” had scripted it. I’ve enjoyed most of the recent comedic efforts of James Franco. And, it’s hard for me to turn down a movie with both Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel in the cast. The resulting movie from all these excellent elements isn’t totally terrible, but the whole is not the sum of its parts. It isn’t even a sum of fractions of them.

McBride plays Thadeous, the youngest son of King Tallious (Charles Dance, “Last Action Hero”). Thadeous wearies of the exploits and conquests of his older brother, the heir to the throne, Fabious (Franco, “Date Night”). The king wishes Thadeous would apply himself with the same heroics as the prince. When Fabious’s bride-to-be, Belladonna (Deschanel, “500 Days of Summer”), is kidnapped by his arch nemesis, the wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux, “Mulholland Dr.”), the king decides that Thadeous might have a better chance of finding his potential by accompanying his brother on a quest to rescue the princess. Thedeus brings along his servant, Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), who seems like he could’ve been the most interesting character, but is never given much of a chance to shine.

Most of the movie’s laughs come from the screenwriters’ insertion of modern slang into the mouths of these fantasy characters, who otherwise speak in an elevated version of English that you might expect in a Medieval setting. That joke wears thin after a while, however. The screenplay also plays against the expectations behind certain fantasy character types. At one point, the brothers visit the “Great Wize Wizard”. This character isn’t human. It’s a little unclear just what he is, but it’s obvious that the filmmakers attempted to design him as a poorly constructed muppet. Perhaps fantasy films like “The Dark Crystal” inspired the character, but the puppeteer work on the wizard is not up to the standards established by Jim Henson. The Great Wize is also a pervert who likely sexually abused Fabious as a little boy. This joke is a little too uncomfortable to be funny.

Eventually, Isabel (Portman, “Black Swan”), who has reasons of her own for wanting Leezar dead, joins the trio on their quest. Portman brings credibility to the story as a fantasy action heroine. She also brings along the shock and awe of the fact that Oscar winner Natalie Portman has no problem being a potty mouth. By this point in the film, any legitimate attempt at presenting this material as a serious fantasy story is ridiculous. Even the glorious photography by Tim Orr is lost to the script’s crudities.

Having been in that basement with a painted figurine in front of me to represent my dwarf fighter, I can understand what the filmmakers are going for here. It’s funny to see a fantasy villain trying to crack casual jokes at wildly inappropriate moments. Plus, the conventions of fantasy-based heroics are ripe for ridicule. Unfortunately, too much of the movie’s comedy falls on one crude note, and many of the jokes cross so far over the border of good taste that they’re less funny than they are disturbing.  

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