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Your Highness plays like a dirty-joke blooper reel made by the cast of a junky sword-and-sorcery epic, streaked with carelessly contemporary-sounding blue humor, blunt profanity replacing the naughty-naughty, tankard-sloshing, heaving-bosom ribaldry that goes with the period setting.
The scene: a generic medieval realm from an EverQuest or Forgotten Realms module. In a kingdom beneath two moons, where everyone attempts English accents when they remember to, Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) resigns himself to live in the shadow of his firstborn brother, Fabious (James Franco, strapping straight-man). In Goofus and Gallant style, as Thadeous loafs and tokes, Fabious returns flecked with gore and glory from his latest quest, having freed a bride-to-be, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), from fairy-tale captivity.
When wicked wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) re-kidnaps Belladonna, planning to force her into ritual breeding, Fabious drags reluctant Thadeous along on a rescue mission; the party is eventually rounded out by Rasmus Hardiker as Thadeous’s valet—giving the newtish reaction- shot cutaways treasured by Saxondale fans—and Natalie Portman, in easily her greatest role as a vengeance-lusty ranger.
Your Highness was directed by David Gordon Green, from a scenario by Ben Best and McBride. The last time Green, McBride, and Deschanel worked together, the actors were relative unknowns on the set of the indie All the Real Girls (2003), filmed in the Black Mountains of North Carolina with the sword budget of Your Highness. More recently, Green has worked in comedy, directing Pineapple Express (2008) and episodes for Best and McBride’s HBO series Eastbound & Down, in which McBride plays a Randy Myers–esque braggart whose bullying is made forgivable by the transparency of his insecurities and his little-boy obsession with a heroic ideal of his life.
Green’s crossover comedies aren’t necessarily a 180-degree turn from his earlier work. The innocence found in his first feature, George Washington (2000), is parodied in the interplay between McBride and Franco, who seem like eager, frightened, petulant children, swashbuckling with cardboard tubes (“I don’t want to do swords with you, I was doing it by myself”). The splashy bloodshed is so much red crayon. The picaresque quest model in Green’s Undertow (2004) continues with the wayfaring stoners of Pineapple Express and, in his latest, with McBride’s peasant-prince, as the unfurling discovery of the director’s road-movie storytelling keeps Your Highness buzzing.
The fantasy setting is selected less for Bored of the Rings send-up—though there is obvious relish in putting dumpy McBride into Boris Vallejo landscapes—than to license anything-goes liberation. One giddy sequence starts with Thadeous mocking Fabious’s anxiety about his bride’s endangered maidenhead—as in All the Real Girls, the plot hinges on Deschanel’s intact virginity—when they’re suddenly surrounded by nude, mud-daubed warrior nymphs from the sleeve of the Slits’ Cut; they drag the captive heroes into a primitive coliseum presided over by an infantilized chieftain with a spit curl squiggle down his forehead who wields a hand-puppet hydra.
But such unobstructed, whooping, and wheeling free association isn’t the rule. The movie’s improvisatory recklessness often relies on stock, fallback comedy: scenes lazily punchlined on four-letter words, pot slang, and gay jokes only offensive in their unoriginality.
The constant raunch in Your Highness spoofs on the horny confusion of the adolescent audience that fantasy art has traditionally catered to. A climactic battle royale rages around Leezar’s performance anxiety—Theroux plays the wizard with very funny insidious skeeviness, like a dirty kid bluffing at experience. Much mileage is elsewhere got from a Minotaur dong, while the last laugh makes it very clear that the grail of every magical adventure is actual sex (after which most folks ditch their Dungeon Master’s Guide).
In the film’s opening credits, Prince Valiant–style illustrations of the characters are graffiti’d with drawn-on dicks, tits, and lit joints—like the vandalized movie posters in the subway that make the advertised products seem much more entertaining than they could ever possibly be. So through auto-defacement does Your Highness restore the heroic saga.