Most of the trailers for Your Highness — the new comedy written by Danny McBride and directed by David Gordon Green — feature a shot of Natalie Portman’s butt in lieu of actual jokes. It’s probably not a bad strategy to lure viewers, but highlighting the recent Oscar winner’s rarely-seen rear also hints at everything that’s right with Your Highness. Spurning mainstream comedy’s recent trend of confusing vomiting with laughing and farts with punchlines, Your Highness ditches gross-out for glee, ew for enthusiasm. It’s a surprisingly kind film that hates neither its character nor its audience (even the would-be evil wizard/rapist is endearing) — besides like two scenes of lighting up, that feeling of irie is all that makes Your Highness a stoner comedy as advertised. With a few exceptions, what’s funny in this medieval fantasy spoof isn’t what’s uncomfortable, awkward, or gross. It’s what we — and the characters — love: unicorns, Mortal Kombat energy rays, James Franco’s wind-blown hair, tender hugs, pot-growing wizards. Natalie Portman’s butt.
That style of comedic lovefest is a naturally good fit for fantasy and the medieval, two genres that are driven by our juvenile loves anyhow. It’s a scientific fact that dragons, swords, and the word “knave” are all awesome. It’s too bad that a lot of films — like last year’s Robin Hood or the recent, unintentionally spectacular Season of the Witch — don’t allow them to be so. McBride doesn’t make that mistake. One of the few funny people today (along with Aziz Ansari) who relies more on joy than on how much everything sucks (stop whining, Patton Oswalt), McBride’s best material is the juvenilia of adulthood. In the television comedy series East Bound and Down, which he writes and also stars in, he’s right at (mobile) home making things seem genuinely appealing that a lot of us thought weren’t okay to dig: jet skis, cheap beer, mullets, goatees, and professional baseball. He also swears creatively and has a sidekick he berates mercilessly. Swap fantasy dorks for rednecks, and Your Highness uses the exact same blueprint.
Thadeous (Danny McBride) is our guide through the film’s medieval buffoonery, the lazy, inept youngest royal son who both looks up to, and is jealous of, his older brother Fabious (James Franco), a fearless knight and skilled swordsman who’s set to inherit the kingdom. To make things worse, Fabious is also more liked (when he smiles big, Franco is almost creepily disarming), and — as closeups on his flexing biceps and codpiece indicate — more studly than the mulleted Thadeous. As the film begins, Fabious is returning home to the castle with much fanfare after some epic questing; not only did he kick some villain ass, but he also rescued a beautiful damsel (Zooey Deschanel as Belladonna) who was imprisoned in a tower. In a clever bit of casting, Belladonna — like most of Deschanel’s roles — is manic pixie dream girl, but exaggeratedly quirky to the point of mental handicap. She’s been locked up so long that she’s never learned how to use a fork; Fabious just smiles at this charming defect as food drips out of her mouth during a grand feast.
The couple’s set to get married, but while Thadeous (who was supposed to be the best man) is off sulking (McBride’s very adult heft and hair contrast hilariously with his childish tantrums), the wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) steals the bride away. His plan is to use her to unleash a monstrous dragon by waiting until the two moons align, or something, to devirginize her. And, coincidentally himself: when Belladonna coyly tries to plant the seeds for performance anxiety by asking him how he knows his junk will actually work, Leezar gloats, “If your vagina is anything like my hand, there will be no problems.” Fabious and his knights set off on a quest to rescue her, and Thadious — who, in response to his father telling him that he needed to quest in order to prove he’s finally a man, asked if he can prove this some other way, like “boiling a chicken” or “beating off in front of a Pegasus” — joins him.
Along the way, they team up with the mysterious Isabel (Natalie Portman), who’s on a quest of her own; Thadious is smitten by her fighting skills — which are better than the men’s — as much as or more than her rear. If you’ve seen Portman’s Saturday Night Live rap, you know that it’s inexplicably funny to watch her be ruthless, which she does often in the film. It’s refreshing to see a modern comedy where a woman’s on equal comedic ground with the men, instead of the mostly-chaste Beatriz-like (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy) beacons of self-improvement in most Apatow productions.
Besides Portman’s ass-kicking and the brothers trading a double handjob for a magic compass from a pervert wizard who looks like a catfish, the film’s best jokes — and there are a shit-ton of them — are verbal. For most action sequences, director Green plays it mostly straight, following the habit of his previous stoner comedy, the not-very-funny Pineapple Express, of neatly separating “jokes” and “action.” The Moral Kombat-style energy rays that shoot from Leezar’s (and, seemingly, everyone else’s) hands are amusing at first, but lose their jolt pretty quickly. While competent, neither they nor the film’s swordfights are as thrilling as McBride’s dialogue. It’s too bad Green’s unimaginative, unexpressive action pauses the film’s irie — Your Highness is only a few cheetah rides or marionette air strikes away from reaching truly great highs. I know stoners mostly sit around, but movement can be funny, too.