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April 09, 2011

Movie Review: Your Highness

I'm not sure how to rate a movie with little ambition -- do I rate it according to whether it successfully did what it intended, or do I deduct a half point for it not being particularly difficult? I'll deduct the half point, I guess, because that's what critics do. (Ever seen a very funny movie get a four star rating? Doesn't happen often.)

So I'll give it three stars. Worth seeing, including in theaters, if -- and this is a big if -- if you want to see a solidly R-rated move and if the basic premise of a fantasy/fairy-tale story about a loutish, moronic jackass who spouts anachronistic vulgarities in virtually every single line of dialog appeals to you.

Two bits of background: This script was posted on line and I read the first twenty pages about six months ago. The premise seemed good, but the actual script didn't grab me; it was mostly just the Danny McBride character spouting inappropriate f-bombs and making lecherous references to handjobs.

I did know, though, that reading a comedy script was pretty deceptive -- for one thing, dialog is the least important thing in a script, and pretty much can be taken as "Placeholder for something we make up later, or the actors or director makes up on shooting day."

For another thing, stuff that plays funny on screen often doesn't read funny on paper (and vice versa) -- imagine Steve Martin's various slow-burns and explosions of anger in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Hysterical -- but on the printed paper it just would have read "Neal gets angrier. Now Neal gets even angrier, and gesticulates wildly." You can appreciate that that could wind up being funny with a good comic performance and some deft comedic editing, but on paper it just seems like a guy's getting annoyed.

(Same thing in reverse -- a lot of lines that read clever on paper won't actually play very funny on the screen, because they won't seem natural or real -- it'll sound like a comedy writer sticking an overly-writerly gag in a character's mouth.)

Anyway, point is, while the script didn't seem funny when I read the beginning of it, I did appreciate that the basic premise of it -- a foul-mouthed anachronistic lout ruining a fairy tale by not behaving properly -- was pretty strong. I don't know what draft I read (they definitely added a new, better, punchier opening), but I could tell the most important thing -- the basics -- were there, even if the jokes weren't yet.

There's a second point that doesn't have much to do with the actual movie, but with the business of movie-making. The Red Letter Media guy -- the one who trashed the Star Wars prequels -- is now doing movie reviews, sort of normal ones, like Siskel & Ebert, but with a little bonus comedy thrown in. Anyway, when they reviewed Paul (they liked it a lot better than I did), the main guy noted that the movie seemed to have done itself a disservice, in a business sense, by going for an R rating.

His point wasn't about a moral objection to dirty language. It was just about proper business sense. Paul seems to sell itself as a sweet, genial road movie with a cute alien. It almost seems like it should, or at least could, be a kid's movie, or at least a family-friendly one, appealing to adults and kids alike.

But they throw in about ten uses of the f-word and a slight bit of other frothy language, and a brief pot-smoking scene. So that gets it the R.

But that's what you call a "soft R" -- it's barely an R. None of those f-bombs were really so important to the script they couldn't have been replaced by some other word.

Point is, R-rated movies don't make as much money as PG-13, as teenagers can't buy tickets for them (they do see them, of course-- they just buy a ticket for another movie they don't see, and just walk into the R-rated movie they don't have a ticket for), so unless your movie really needs to be R-rated, it almost certainly shouldn't be. Not if money matters to you, which it should, really, unless you're a moron.

So Paul was really misconceived as far as rating -- with a slight bit of rewriting it could have been a PG-13 movie and make twice as much money (or five times as much, if it became a kid-hit).

Rule 1: from a business point of view, don't go for the R rating unless the material really needs that R rating. Rule 2: if you're going for the R, you might as well go deep into R-territory.

Which brings me to Your Highness -- it's R-rated for the right reason. It decided early it was going to be an R-rated movie -- it didn't just sort of accidentally blunder into a soft-R like Paul; it set out from the jump to be awful -- and it earns every damn bit of that R-rating.

Just so you're properly advised about the sort of movie this is, be aware that it contains almost relentless vulgarity and constant explicit references to sex (and not purely verbal references), lots of nudity (male, female, and in between), some humorously explicit reverse homosexual bestiality, multiple references to drug use (and not in a bad way), a general juvenile tone of gutter-dwelling puerility, and, just to top that off, it decides that a "fantasy action movie" ought to have Conan-style blood-splashes and gore and so tosses that in for good measure.

Also -- as an extra special bonus -- it spends quite a bit of time making jokes about two topics that most people usually don't think are ripe with comic promise, molestation and rape. Yes, indeed, the princess in this movie is being threatened with just that, and the movie decides to have some fun with the not-usually-played-for-laughs premise of impending rape.

Now, I'm giving this movie three stars, so I can also say, for me, all of this worked and I was chuckling and enjoying myself the whole time. The rape/molestation stuff is less offensive than it might sound, for the same reason that South Park and Family Guy get away with gags about such taboo subjects -- because they're cartoons, and their very unreality creates a distancing effect that reassures us, "Relax, none of this is real, and no one is really going to get raped." Your Highness is live-action, but it has that same cartooney vibe of anything-goes unreality, and so dark jokes just wind up just playing silly.

But if this is no-go territory for you, be advised.

Danny McBride plays the same character he always plays -- loutish, stupid, selfish, loud, self-pitying, tormented by inadequacy, and yet supreme in his arrogance and condescension. He sort of plays a character similar to the Standard Jack Black Character, except where we always know that, despite his surface flaws, the Standard Jack Black Character is a lovable lunk with a heart of gold, the Standard Danny McBride Character is rotten all the way down.

There's nothing redeeming about him, except that at the end of the movie we know he has to be redeemed by plot magic, but we don't believe a word of it. We know he's still just a lout and also will be.

And he's also more obsessed with easy sex and illicit drugs than the Standard Jack Black Character, and barely speaks of, or shows any interest in, anything other than his own empty gratifications.

In the kingdom of Morn (I think), Danny McBride plays Prince Thaddeus, the jackass younger brother of the noble, brave, and idealistic Prince Fabius -- basically your standard R-rated Goofus and Gallant contrast. James Franco does a good job of playing Fabius by not doing a good job of playing Fabius -- he seems stoned and scattered, and doesn't bother with a convincing accent or any kind of dramatic investment in the character, and that kind of works just fine, because, like, who cares? This isn't Othello. No one's walking out of here with an Oscar.

It's kind of funny that he's not really very well suited to do play a not-quite-British-accent-but-sort-of-if-you-know-what-I-mean fairy tale prince. It's like he's just showing up to do an unrehearsed cameo for a friend, but this cameo happens to be three quarters of the running time of the movie. He's always sort of giving you a wink that says Yeah, I know I'm not right for this role, too. But I'm here anyway, so let's just go with it.

Anyway, Fabius, fresh from his latest of many Quests -- defeating (but not killing) the horrible wizard Leezar (Jason Theroux, who co-wrote the script with McBride) -- comes back to Home Castle with a beautiful virgin he's rescued (Zooey Deschanel, hot as usual), whom he intends to marry. Leezar gate-crashes the wedding, though, and steals her back -- when the Twin Moons of the world unite (eclipse), he intends to have sex with this lovely virgin and impregnate her, and their union will give birth to... a dragon.

As silly as that sounds, I sort of like the fantasy mythology of that, of an evil wizard fathering a dragon in that way. I mean, sort of makes sense. It's a bit like the mythology of the cockatrice; works well for a dragon, too.

This is an unexpected pleasure of this very dumb, very silly movie -- here and there, when it comes to the fantasy stuff, it's... actually better than it needs to be. Not great -- no one will confuse this with the Lord of the Rings -- but a silly spoof like this can get away, easily, with cheapo effects and crappy production design and off-the-shelf plot points, but this movie actually bothers with some decent-looking sets and make-up and effects and occasionally a new-ish idea.

I wouldn't give the movie extra for that, really, because, who cares, this isn't the kind of spectacle where I care about such things; I just want to see the dick-jokes. But it is sort of nice when you pay money to see a movie and discover the people making it actually bothered to make it a little bit better than you were expecting.

Fabius prepares, with his "Knights Elite," to re-rescue Zooey; the king demands his no-good fat partyboy of a son aid his brother, or else be banished from the kingdom forever.

"Shit," Thaddeus observes.

So the quest commences, with the obligatory fantasy bits:

1. Seek the counsel of a strange wizard who tells you the Secret of how you may achieve your impossible quest, and gives you a Magic Object to aid you in your quest. (Here, a compass that will show The Way to the Haunted Labyrinth.)

2. Be captured in a sylvan forest by strange savage women, some of whom have Really Big Jugs, and others of whom are standing next to women with Really Big Jugs.

3. Meet a fellow warrior along the way, who's also on a Quest, and this warrior wears a hood and mask obscuring the face, so of course you know it will will inevitably turn out to be a Smoking Hot Chick (Natalie Portman).

4. If you're low on reinforcements, recruit Conan the Barbarian at a town along the way. Yeah, it's not really Conan, but it is.

5. Enter the Haunted Labyrinth to retrieve the Sacred Sword; here, you will have to fight a Monster, and also be Tempted to choose the coward's way out.

6. Fight the evil Wizard in his Lair just as the Dread Prophecy is unfolding.

And crucially for this movie:

7. Everyone gets laid at the end.

I'm really avoiding giving away many jokes because I'll just spoil them and they won't be funny when I type them out. I notice a lot of reviewers, who usually don't know a funny movie when they see one and this time is no exception, are doing a lot of that.

Plus, the trailers have spoiled six or eight of them already. But there are consistent small chuckles throughout as Denny McBride schemes of how to get out of the quest, and wants to take breaks so his servant can give him pedicures, and relentlessly hits on Natalie Portman inappropriately. Like, despite the fact she just told him how she's on a quest for vengeance because evil witches slaughtered her entire family and set their decapitated heads on bloody pikes right in front of her eyes, his next words are still basically, "So, that's cool. What's your major?"

And then there are three or four very big laughs, including Justin Theroux as the evil wizard dropping one of the film's more unexpected sex lines.

Anyway: If you like silly, gonzo, R-rated comedy, this is a damn good movie. The audience I saw it with clapped at the end and was laughing more than I was (and I laughed quite a bit).

I have to take points away because sometimes it gets sloppy -- it seemed to leave five or six laughs on the table, either due to not paying off a well-prepared premise or just not buttoning a joke hard enough. (That is, really hitting it strong, rather than sort of ambling around it.)

But that's a pretty small complaint. I laughed a lot, I liked the boobs and violence, and I even liked the CGI in both creatures and settings. The deathly-pale savage sylvan forest women? Actually, they looked better and more convincing than they needed to. The medieval-industrial town running on mill-power? Looked better than it needed to. The hydra-type creature in the arena? Had a more inventive twist to it than it needed to.

One thing: I know people will think I'm making a joke about the Black Swan CGI controversy, but this is the truth: I think Natalie Portman's butt, which you see a lot (at least in a tiny thong), is in fact CGI.

For one thing, I don't know if she'd do partial nudity for a dumb little movie like this. Seems like the sort of thing you'd hold out on, for some Oscar-bait sexual-psychodrama movie co-starring Jeremy Irons as a psychiatrist and featuring a lot of running and shouting in the rain.

For another thing, I can swear I saw some telltale CGI fuzziness around its contour.

Not kidding. I think she Black Swanned us again.

And this time, it hurts.

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posted by Ace at 07:38 PM

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