Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why YOUR HIGHNESS is Truly Epic Comedy


- In comedy, greatness is highly subjective. One man's masterpiece is another man's trash. What is hilarious to some may fall completely flat to others. What some dismiss as dumb may be, to others - to a certain audience that "gets it" - be praised as flat-out genius. And you know what, to me, there is a certain undeniable genius to YOUR HIGHNESS. I take issue with those who simply write it off, because I don't think they've really thought much about what Your Highness is, what it's trying to achieve, or how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do. The fact is, comedy is indeed subjective, but we all have our own comedy absolutes. Certain people, to me, are just plain funny. Tracy Morgan reciting Tracy Jordan lines on 30 Rock. Norm McDonald telling an aimless anecdote in perfect deadpan. Conan O'Brien acting like a self-depricating nerd. These are absolute truths of my personal comedy world, these are things that plain and simply float my boat. One recent addition to my personal pantheon: Danny McBride acting like a pompous jackass. I can't get enough of it. Whether it's in The Foot Fist Way, on the brilliantly hilarious HBO series Eastbound & Down, or here in Your Highness. This isn't to say that Danny McBride is always and absolutely funny. When he's miscast, or given crappy dialogue, or not utilized properly, then that's one thing. But if a movie comes along that lets Danny McBride do what he does best, then I am 100% in. I crack up at his line delivery. I get a kick out of his schtick - false bravado and pumped-up self-esteem thinly masking his inner insecurities. I get that at some point, McBride's riffs on the Kenny Powers persona might get old. But they haven't yet. And man, take Danny McBride, and pair him with frequent collaborators like writer Ben Best and director David Gordon Green, and you've got comedic lightning in a bottle. These guys get it. They are funny. I don't know quite how to explain it, and I know that not everyone gets it. But look, they had me at "Danny McBride and James Franco in a vulgar parody of 80's fantasy flicks." That to me is inherently hilarious. It just is. It's not at all "stupid." Vulgarity can be brilliant. And it's the little things that make it so. The wordplay, the timing, the exact formula of absurdity and self-awareness. The level of commitment from the actors. It's an alchemy that you have to get just right in order for hilarity to ensue. And that's why - critics be damned -if you're of a certain sensibility, if you love Danny McBride's brand of humor, and have an affinity for cheesy fantasy flicks (basically if you're a male born between 1970 and 1990), then you will probably love YOUR HIGHNESS.

Personally, I don't get what's not to like about the charming, funny, and gleefully filthy your Highness. I see it as a raunchy satire in the old Mel Brooks or Zucker Bros. tradition - absurd, silly, and self-referential. To that end, what made movies like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights and The Naked Gun work so well is that Brooks and the Zuckers clearly had a love and appreciation for the material they were satirizing. With YOUR HIGHNESS, there's a similar affection that's evident in every scene. The movie gamely riffs on all the beloved and not-so-beloved fantasy films from the genre's heyday in the 80's - movies like Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Krull, Legend, Beastmaster, The Princess Bride, and many more. You get everything from specific shots, to lines of dialogue, to character archtypes that will be instantly recognizable to genre fans. And the movie looks legitimately good too. There are big action set pieces, huge, crazy monsters (though some are a bit more ... anatomically correct than what we're used to in fantasy films), and sprawling, detailed sets. If you took away all the jokes, Your Highness could be a legit fantasy film, and that is pretty cool. In Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green framed the stoner comedy with some big action scenes and over-the-top violence, and he does the same here - meaning that even aside from the comedy, the movie finds multiple ways to entertain.

Meanwhile, the cast does a great job of playing it straight when called upon, of walking that fine line between taking everything completely seriously and winking at the audience that they're in on the joke. The biggest winker, so to speak, is clearly McBride, who is the total fish out of water. As Thadeous, the younger, fatter, and lazier of the King of Morn's two sons, McBride sort of transplants the Kenny Powers persona to a fantasy world - a place that is like some 13 year old boy's notebook doodle come to life. But, I think a big part of the joke here is that McBride only half-heartedly tries to hide his Kenny Powers mannerisms beneath a barely-there British accent and fluffier-than-usual mullet cut. Again, THIS IS PART OF THE JOKE. To the haters, I ask you - did you want McBride doing a full British accent and acting nothing like his usual persona? Would that have been funnier for this particular movie? No, says I. That's the joke, and it's a pretty hilarious one. It means that McBride gets to utter an unending supply of hilariously filthy lines in his goofy quasi-British accent. It means that we get to have fun watching a modern sort of dude who wants to get laid and get high inserted into the typically serious trappings of high fantasy.

As mentioned though, McBride gets to wink the most at the audience, even as the rest of the cast does a great job of completely committing to their characters. That's what's great about Your Highness - McBride "knows" he's in a goofy comedy. Most of the other characters think they're in a drama, to various degrees. I mean, James Franco, as Thadeous' dashingly heroic brother Fabious, says his lines with such mock-serious sincerity that you keep waiting for him to burst out laughing. And that is part of the fun. On the other end of the spectrum, Natalie Portman is the total straight-woman as Isabel, a bow-wielding warrior who joins up with the brothers on their quest. Somewhere in the middle is the scene-stealing Justin Theroux as Leezar, the evil wizard who kidnaps Fabious' bride-to-be so he can use her to fulfill a dark prophecy. Theroux relishes playing the over-the-top villain, to the point where his truly evil, menacing lines are delivered with the same sinister inflection as his absurdly hilarious ones. Rasmus Hardiker is also great as Thadeous' subserviant page-boy Courtney - and he is basically the king of goofy reaction shots throughout the movie. Meanwhile, Damian Lewis also gets maximum laughs by playing everything completely straight. The fact that he plays a legitimately badass knight makes some of the crazy dialogue he utters that much funnier. Finally, Zooey Deschanel is very game as Fabious' virginal love Belladonna. She even sings a bit in a great duet scene with Franco.

Does every joke in Your Highness hit its target? No, of course not. But the movie is so filled with laugh-out-loud moments, memorable gags, and inspired dialogue (that will surely be quoted by comedy geeks for many moons), that it's hard to criticize too much of what doesn't work. I do think the movie gets a little jumpy at times, and you can tell that there was a lot of trimming and editing applied to this cut of the film in the interest of keeping the running time down. I can't wait to see a longer, director's cut, which would hopefully include some added screen time for certain characters and a bit more fleshing-out of a couple of key subplots.

Who knows, maybe YOUR HIGHNESS only truly appeals to a certain segment of comedy fan. But I also think there's a tendency lately from critics to shoot down modern comedies simply because they don't come from the Apatow school of quasi-realistic, dialogue-driven character studies. There is of course a place for those sorts of movies, but at the same time, the comedy I grew up with was stuff like Spaceballs and Hot Shots and The Naked Gun and Robin Hood: Men In Tights. I love the big, broad, unabashedly silly school of comedy, and we don't get a lot of those types of films these days. But for whatever reason, critics now bash the genre wholesale (witness the undeserved bashing that the very-funny MacGruber got last year), with only a few sacred cows (ie the early films of Mel Brooks and the Zuckers) getting any real love in the comedy cannon. I'm not saying that Your Highness is, right now, a classic on par with Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. But what I am saying is that it's a mostly pitch-perfect comedy that, in my mind, was absolutely hilarious from start to finish. And really, what more do you want from a movie like this? I say go see this one right now - support guys like David Gordon Green who are putting their talent into original, bold comedy. We've got plenty of by-the-book big screen comedies about guys with relationship issues or whatever. Now we've got a crazy-ass, big-budget, R-Rated comedy epic where Danny McBride and James Franco and Natalie Portman fight dragons and minotaurs and exchange some of the most hilariously perverse dialogue to hit theaters in ages. Now that, *that* is a movie that I as a comedy fan can get behind.

My Grade: A-

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