Beyond Disappointment Case File #22: Your Highness
When I was 14, I briefly lived with a wealthy foster family, until they discovered that, being a hormone-addled, rage-choked teenager, I was less interested in attending school than in ditching class every afternoon to rent R-rated videos as part of my epic quest to discover which movies had boobs in them, an obsession that consumed most of my adolescence. As the end of my time as a foster child approached, I asked my temporary mother-type figure if she was disappointed in me and she replied, with an absolutely exquisite sense of melodrama, “Nathan, I am beyond disappointed in you.”
That’s how I felt after watching David Gordon Green’s 2011 stoner fantasy-comedy epic Your Highness. I wasn’t just disappointed in Green and star/co-screenwriter Danny McBride, whom I consider one of the funniest men alive. Disappointed didn’t begin to do justice to my feelings. I was beyond disappointed. Green had transformed me, metaphorically at least, into a middle-aged Jewish mother standing in sour judgment of something I had high hopes for that weren’t just dashed; they were destroyed so thoroughly that it made me seriously question Green’s judgment and ability. I deeply believed in Green, the freakishly talented wunderkind behind masterpieces like George Washington and All The Real Girls, so it was dispiriting seeing him and his equally gifted colleagues behave like emotionally stunted pre-adolescents.
I know this might seem a little overblown. I don’t want to vilify a man for picking up a hefty paycheck for making a goofy romp with his buddies. There’s no crime in that. But art matters, and Green began his career as an artist with boundless potential, a visual poet with a deeply humane aesthetic whose lyricism and reverence for nature pegged him as a potential stylistic heir to Terrence Malick. (Malick essentially co-signed this conception of Green as his creative progeny when he produced Green’s 2004 Night Of The Hunter homage Undertow.)
In 2008, Green directed Pineapple Express, a hit stoner action-comedy that radically changed the way the director was perceived within the industry and without. The film became a big hit and an arthouse auteur unexpectedly found himself a successful commercial filmmaker of a raunchy lowbrow comedy. With Pineapple Express, Green struck a nice balance between delivering the action-comedy goods and serving his own funky, ’70s-rooted sensibility. The same is true of his direction of buddy and regular collaborator McBride’s consistently brilliant HBO vehicle Eastbound & Down. Television is rightly considered a writer’s medium, and while Eastbound & Down is brilliantly written, it’s also one of the best-directed shows on television, and Green and his previously impeccable cinematic pedigree are at least partially responsible for that.
Green had already made a surprisingly smooth transition from heavyweight artist to popular entertainer when he signed on to direct Your Highness, a fantasy-action-comedy vehicle for McBride (who co-wrote the film with fellow Eastbound & Down co-creator Ben Best) and Pineapple Express’ James Franco, coming off his Oscar-nominated turn in 127 Hours. Pineapple Express was an action movie centered on a drug that typically hinders ambitions greater than reaching for a bag of Doritos, and in conception, Your Highness was even more of a gleeful incongruity: a smutty, scatological, and shameless stoner variation on the characteristically wholesome and family-friendly form of the spectacle-heavy fantasy epic.
Alas, devoting $50 million, the services of a gifted cast, and an army of special-effects and make-up artists to a half-assed dick joke of a movie constitutes Your Highness’ most inspired, and only real, joke. There are drawings of penises scribbled by 10-year-old children that would constitute more mature and productive blueprints for major motion pictures than Your Highness’ script. It shouldn’t have just been rejected; everyone involved in its creation should have been forced to wear a dunce cap and sit in a corner until they were serious about writing a script for a film someone might actually want to see rather than something that’s 50 or 60 drafts from still being unfilmable.
I was not alone in my estimation. Your Highness was a huge commercial bomb, grossing just over $20 million domestically despite a $50 million production budget (which doesn’t include the considerable costs involving in marketing and distribution). International audiences were even less impressed; the film grossed a little over $3 million despite the continued commercial appeal of what A.V. Club managing editor Kyle Ryan likes to refer to as “wizards and shit.” Critics, meanwhile, didn’t review the film so much as they rubbed the film’s awfulness in the noses of everyone involved like a new dog owner housetraining a puppy. Because, honestly, how else are you ever going to keep a dog from shitting in the house, or talented people from knowingly, deliberately, and with great malice and foresight, making movies like Your Highness? “Is Your Highness the worst film ever made?” pondered the title of Andrew O’Hehir’s review of the film for Salon. He was, as might be imagined, not a fan of the film, which popped up in plenty of 2011 worst-of lists, including the A.V Club’s. A longtime critical darling had bottomed out with a film so egregiously dumb and awful it made everything Green did before seem just a little suspect by comparison.
Your Highness—whose winking title provides all too accurate representation of the level of wit and sophistication on display—opens with narration booming, “Prepare thyself for one twisted tale. Through the chapters of time, legends have been told of brave nights, evil warlocks, beautiful maidens, magical prophecies, and other serious shit.” That, sadly, is the film in a nutshell: boilerplate fantasy nonsense transformed into slapdash, half-assed, smutty comedy through the employment of profanity at seemingly random intervals.
We’re then introduced to McBride’s antihero, a prince who seethes with bitterness and jealousy as his dashing brother (Franco) is deified by the populace and beloved by their father (Charles Dance) for his never-ending record of heroism and derring-do. After a lifetime of sloth and mindless self-indulgence, McBride gets an opportunity to redeem himself and his wasted existence by embarking on his first quest. His heroic journey tasks him with freeing Franco’s virginal fiancée (Zooey Deschanel, who in a former, better life once starred opposite McBride in Green’s heartbreaking romance All The Real Girls) before her virginity is taken by an evil warlock (Justin Theroux) who wants to deflower her to create a powerful dragon he can use to control the land.
The clip below captures the first time Your Highness attempts to glean humor from what it seems to feel is the surefire hilarity of men having sex with—get this—other men! In this case, it’s McBride responding to the snide mockery of evil lackey Toby Jones by pantomiming receiving oral sex, then remarking that it’s remarkable Jones can talk to him while sucking his dick. Lovers of gay-panic jokes are in for a treat with this film, since once they start they just don’t stop. It would be an exaggeration to argue that Your Highness offers nothing but gay-panic jokes, but it does deliver jokes in this fruitless vein at a steady clip, coughing up a homophobic gag every 20 minutes or so. (Malick must be so proud of the new direction his acolyte’s career has taken.)
Such jokes are depressing because the notion that it’s inherently funny that there are men (or, in the case of Your Highness, fantastical beasties) who totally do it with other men is pathetic and regressive, but also because they are simply not funny. At all. I honestly can’t think of a single instance where a gay-panic joke was at all funny, let alone as consistently hilarious as Your Highness finds them to be.
Your Highness is not entirely devoid of comic invention. In order to fulfill his evil prophecy, Theroux has kept Deschanel locked away in a tower since infancy, so her socialization process is so non-existent that she’s essentially an idiot woman-child wholly devoid of social graces. She consequently has the beauty and charm of a princess and a toddler’s understanding of how the world works. This could be a rich vein of humor, but the film quickly abandons the idea not long after introducing it.
McBride and Franco set out on the road to save Deschanel—McBride reluctantly and Franco with great vigor—first visiting a “wise wizard” in search of guidance. This affords the filmmakers an opportunity to indulge in what could very well be the first inter-species gay-panic jokes in the history of American studio films, as Franco implores McBride to kiss the wise wizard—who looks like Jar Jar Binks’ debauched cousin—before it’s revealed that the wise wizard molested Franco when he was a boy. The scene ends as it must, with McBride and Franco jerking off the wise wizard as a reward for his assistance.
Just as Your Highness cannot imagine a world where gay-panic jokes are anything but a riot, it believes just as strongly and as misguidedly that the incongruous juxtaposition of old-time fantasy dialogue and newfangled profanity never stops being funny. Like gay-panic jokes, putting “fucks” and “shits” and “motherfuckers” in the mouths of wizards and princes is never funny, yet Your Highness never tires of that gag. Imagine a forgettable ’80s fantasy B-movie hijacked by 12-year-olds who couldn’t envision anything funnier than if warlocks started swearing or monsters tried to do the heroes up the butt, and you have a good sense of Your Highness’ defiant stupidity.
In their quest to save Deschanel, McBride and Franco join forces with a ferocious warrior (Natalie Portman) out to avenge her family’s murder. Franco, McBride, and Portman face sentient mazes, fearsome warriors, and evil warlocks as well as a minotaur that provides the film still another opportunity for an interspecies gay-panic joke. I’m showing the clip below partially to illustrate the extent of Your Highness’ mind-boggling obsession with the comic possibilities presented by gay sex, but also because I feel like the My World Of Flops canon is greatly enriched by even a fleeting glimpse of a minotaur penis. Your Highness promises sights unseen and wonders to behold, but several seconds of minotaur cock is pretty much all it delivers.
Your Highness isn’t wholly devoid of merit: Portman and Deschanel look lovely, and Green’s cinematographer Tim Orr films them flatteringly (though it would have been super had they been given anything more to do than look lovely), and Franco has a nice smile and a certain daft sweetness about him. But that’s about it. Your Highness has a comic genius as its lead, a great director at the helm, a fantastic cast, and a huge budget, and its sole saving grace is that it’s that one Hollywood film with attractive actors in central roles.
For a goofy lark, Your Highness is strangely joyless. It recycles the same noxious gags over and over again with such single-minded focus that after a certain point it seems The Rake Effect—named after the Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob steps on a rake so many times that it’s funny, then trying, then exhausting, then finally hilarious again—would have to kick in. But since Your Highness’ two kinds of jokes—fantasy figures swearing and gay panic—are never funny in the first place, their repetition never circles around to being amusing, let alone hilarious.
It’s a testament to how much talent Your Highness squanders that after it was finished its star/co-creator and director went from making one of the worst films of 2011 to crafting one of the funniest, most inspired and original television shows of the decade in Eastbound & Down. When you are capable of greatness, as McBride and Green consistently are, this kind of regressive idiocy isn’t just disappointing, it’s appalling.
By following up Pineapple Express with Your Highness, Green and McBride went directly from the stoner cult classic Up In Smoke to Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers, the Cheech and Chong movie that attempted to prove that Cheech and Chong didn’t need pot to be funny. (Turns out they did.) Your Highness was not a story that needed to be told or a film that needed to be made so much as some puerile nonsense some talented, misguided souls apparently had to get out of their system.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure