There’s something wonderful and goofy about a film that has James Franco in a long wig and a codpiece sending up legendary heroes, as the Medieval Prince Fabious, and Natalie Portman as a slender, vengeful warrior with the toughness of an Amazon. But that wit doesn’t go far in Your Highness, a sporadically funny one-note comedy.
The film isn’t, as the title suggests, one long stoner joke, although there are enough of those. It’s a twist on the fish-out-of-water trick, which kicks in at the very start.
Danny McBride, as Fabious’ less handsome, less brave brother Thadeous, is about to be hanged for seducing the wife of the king of the dwarfs. As the camera closes in on Thadeous, he says, “Oh, fuck me.” There you have the simple-minded formula: plop the actors into Medieval times and costumes, and have them scatter contemporary language around, along with plenty of nudging sexual references. It’s an approach that can only work if the screenplay makes those lines sharp, but instead Your Highness bumbles along.
The screenplay is by McBride and Ben Best, who also collaborated on The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound and Down, so they’re not noted for sophisticated satire. Director David Gordon Green’s very funny Pineapple Express turned its single stoner joke into a movie with much more energy and wit.
At times the shambling Your Highness aims to be a raunchier version of The Princess Bride; sometimes it plays more like the slapsticky The Visitors; often the lines just make you groan. Fabious, inviting his brother to join in a joyous feast celebrating his recent return to the castle, says to Thadeous, “I want you to be gay with me and father.” You almost expect Beavis and Butt-head to come along and snicker.
The best moments come from some winking, satiric performances: Franco, delivering Fabious’ inflated, romantic lines; Zooey Deschanel as his virginal love, Belladonna, naively out of touch with the world because she has been imprisoned most of her life by the evil magician Leezar, played by Justin Theroux with a gleefully menacing sneer.
The cast is game, but never meshes. As the brothers set out on a dangerous quest to rescue Belladonna, McBride’s character seems to have landed from a much dumber movie, as if Larry the Cable Guy had dropped into a Christopher Guest comedy. Instead of making that deliberate friction work, Your Highness jolts from one lame joke to another. Natalie Portman plays it straight as Isabel, the tough-ass heroine who turns out to be Thadeous’s love interest. They’re supposed to be an unlikely couple, yet in the end we’re also meant to believe it.
In fact, Your Highness is so chaotic it sometimes loses sight of its mockery and raunchiness altogether and threatens to become a Disney action movie. The brothers and Isabel face a tentacled dragon, and the climactic end offers up lightning bolts flying from magicians’ hands and bodies zooming through the air. It’s all pretty much a mess.
I wouldn’t entirely agree with Thadeous when he says, as he does in the trailer below, “This quest sucks.” (And what were the writers thinking, giving us such an easy invitation to ridicule?) It semi-sucks.