The potential failure of something calling itself “Your Highness” and being marketed, in the most blatant of terms, as a medieval stoner movie, is fairly, er, high. These are untapped waters, and a fairly ballsy decision for Universal, after several big-budgeted near-bombs, to make a big budget, very-R-rated comedy that riffs on the esoteric spate of sword-and-sorcery movies from the 1980s (like Playlist favorite “Krull“). In short: it could have been truly, eye-rollingly awful.
But thankfully, the playful, irreverent spirit, gutbusting crudeness and general go-for-broke-ness that the cast and crew — led by director David Gordon Green — approach the material has turned, as if through magical transmogrification, a potentially messy experiment into a ridiculous, yet bold, stylistically winning genre-mash up that will leave you in stitches.
If anything, “Your Highness” lets you know what it’s got in store for you from the very beginning. After a witchy prologue (something about some kind of prophecy, blah blah blah), we’re thrust into an incredibly wacky situation — with dullard prince Thadeous (Danny McBride, who also wrote the script with his “Eastbound & Down” co-conspirator Ben Best) being sentenced to hanging. Of course, the hanging is taking place in a dwarf village and, in a pretty great visual gag, once the trap door opens up, he just runs away, taking his manservant Courtney (an excellent, fairly unknown Rasmus Hardiker) along with him.
After a jaunty title sequence, in which we witness tableaus of Thadeous and Courtney’s escape with crude Perez Hilton-ish graffiti scribbled all over the images (mostly giant dicks and pot leaves), we’re introduced to Thadeous’ charming, gallant brother Fabious (James Franco, all feathery hair and glowing smile). Fabious has returned to the kingdom with the head of a fearsome Cyclops and the hand of a beautiful maiden (Zooey Deschanel). They are to be wed at once, and the entire kingdom (including the unassailable Charles Dance as the king and Toby Jones and Damien Lewis as men of the court) prepares for their union.
But wouldn’t you know it, an evil wizard (Justin Theroux) shows up at the wedding, only to capture the fair would-be princess and spirit her away to his dark tower. It’s at this moment that Theroux doesn’t just steal the princess, he steals the movie – with his hair styled into spiked points, a mouth full of false teeth, and unexpected (yet expert) delivery of the word “motherfucker” – the movie is forever in his debt and every time he appears for the remainder of the film, things become enlivened and substantially weirder.
Back to the plot, though. Thadeous and Fabious are tasked with returning the fair maiden to the castle, and so they venture forth with Courtney and the kingdom’s elite band of heroes (including the aforementioned Lewis and Jones) to retrieve her. The movie takes on a distinct guys on a mission/buddy comedy vibe here, but things soon veer into far more bizarre territory, as the brothers visit a vaguely supernatural creature who is also a pedophile (don’t ask). It’s here that the movie shows its true colors – it’s a bold, unapologetic mixture of crass comedy and high-spirited sword-and-sorcery adventure.
The movie trucks along at this rhythm – alternating between extreme crudity and more jaunty, fantasy movie tropes. There’s an episodic nature to much of the movie, with the bumbling heroes getting involved in one supernatural mishap after another. But it’s a testament to director David Gordon Green’s ability to swiftly transition from one such episode to the next; things never feel draggy or bogged down. He shoots the action gorgeously, with longtime collaborator Tim Orr giving everything an even grander scope. It helps that things are so consistently funny, too. Franco and McBride are an inspired comic team (even more so than they were in Green’s “Pineapple Express“), with Franco’s straight man showing a sliver of knowing goofiness and McBride on full-tilt obscene-as-he-wants-to-be mode, even when courting a gorgeous warrior (Natalie Portman, one-dimensional but game), who has her own score to settle with Theroux’s wizard. Everyone’s chemistry is aces and while yes, the comedy is generally puerile and juvenile, it’s also wickedly funny every single step of the way. Again, more points to the directors and actors who even elevate just so-so jokes with their cad-ish, cheeky and very charming delivery (with McBride coming out on top here).
While the comedy is obviously improvised, it’s organic to the material and none of it feels like just riffs from a Will Ferrell movie — which are funny in and of themselves, but don’t always add up to much. Portman is rather wickedly funny by just playing things seriously straight and it’s amusing to see two Academy Award nominees (Franco and Portman, who is actually a winner) relishing the excuse to play in such a wantonly absurd film.
If either half of the movie had faltered, if the comedy had been limp or the fantasy stuff had fizzled, then the movie would have been sunk. But there’s a strange, alluring tonal balance that’s achieved, one in which a band of topless nomadic tribeswomen can seduce our heroes five seconds before a giant, mutli-headed serpent explodes from the ground, and everything makes perfect sense (more or less). In the end, “Your Highness” resembles less the stoner comedy that the marketing team has been so hell-bent on portraying than one of the loving genre send-ups that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg used to craft (that said, this is leaps and bounds above the Wright-less “Paul“). Everything feels so genuine and sincere – from the wonderfully realized creatures by Spectral Motion (who also did the great beasts in “Attack the Block“) to the awesomely sweeping score by Steve Jablonsky that sometimes folds in phonier sounding electronic elements to appropriate the ’80s-nature of those original scores – that it seems inappropriate to call “Your Highness” a spoof. It’s goofy, for sure, and profane, and utterly, batshit insane (bow down to the Minotaur penis scene), but it carves out its own bizarro groove. You may not laugh your ass off (though you likely will), but you’ll at least be impressed by a studio comedy as boldly strange and gorgeously photographed as this. [B+]