Get Back to Work! by David Bax
As a dedicated fan of comedy and someone who can often be heard griping that it deserves respect on the same plane as more serious art forms, I should be ecstatic over the fact that art-house sweetheart David Gordon Green has taken to directing comedic films. And I would be, too, if he weren’t making movies like Your Highness.
Here, Green teams up again with Danny McBride, whom he has directed in several episodes of HBO’s Eastbound and Down, one of the best television series going today and also one of the best bits of evidence that you can make real art that is filled with smart but lowbrow jokes. That show makes me think that perhaps the most important ingredient is neither McBride nor Green but executive producer Jody Hill, who directed The Foot Fist Way, the film that introduced McBride to the comedy world, and 2009’s Observe and Report, which is flawed but far funnier and more ambitious, daring and intelligent than Your Highness.
This new venture is a swords-and-sorcery stoner comedy that appears to be chiefly intended for, as well as assembled by, pubescent boys. There’s a certain type of young male who gravitates toward things like fantasy and heavy metal. (It should be noted that not all fantasy advocates fit the following description and that I myself like heavy metal). These are children who are largely unpopular at school but have found a core group of like-minded social misfits with whom to bond. Their cloistered circle develops a view of the world in which masculinity and male bonding are highly prized but the inherent homo-eroticism in that is unacknowledged or firmly denied. Women are only perceived as sexual objects, both because the chosen forms of culture only present them as such and because these boys are wholly unequipped to understand females in any other way. Lastly, there is a giddy bloodlust, perhaps brought about by the solipsism of the narrowly defined group’s worldview. Or, more reductively, perhaps these miscreants yearn to see bloodshed because they long to watch the world that has shunned them be punished.
All of the above is on display in Your Highness. From the very beginning, there is a level and style of gore that betrays a disinterest on Green’s part in tonal consistency. It’s not that violence can’t be comical, it’s just that this violence isn’t even trying to be. There are two chief female roles in the film, played thanklessly by Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel. The former is a warrior in skintight clothes who proves much more handy with a sword (or a spear or an arrow or any other phallic weapon) then either of the two men (McBride and James Franco, who hosted the Oscars with more zeal than he displays here). The latter is a virgin with her breasts corseted up to her chin who has been locked in a tower her entire life and is as naïve as a child. Both of these characters, along with an eye-rolling preoccupation with intercourse in the screenplay, serve to showcase a mindset on the part of the filmmakers that is downright terrified of sex. The capable and strong-willed woman causes these men to shake in their boots and the ideal mate is one with no mind of her own to speak of, ready to be molded. And of course, she’s never, ever, ever slept with anyone else.
Deschanel and Justin Theroux, as the villain, turn in the best performances by far, mostly as a result of their taking the film seriously. Their scenes together have the most laughs, the sharpest wits and only entry points into becoming actually invested in the movie. However, Deschanel’s appearance can’t help but call to mind the fact that she was in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, one of the most nuanced and thoughtful films ever made about the hypocrisy of what men expect from women and why. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time for Green to get back to work.