Monday, April 25, 2011

Your Highness reviewed and damned

I've been working on a suitably geeklordly metaphor for how bad this film is. Here we go. Remember Mordor? Blackened pits choked with volcanic ash, drear peaks, pits of lava and so forth. "A dying land not yet dead". Doubleplusungood, yes?

Now, hold that blasted place in your mind's eye and add ... Tom Bombadil. Yes, that sorely unamusing rhyming excuse for a Marc Bolan roadie who nearly ruins the middle section of The Fellowship of the Ring with his incongruous, grating, cheerfulness.

Roll with me on this one. You're in the kingdom of the Big Bad, surrounded by dread, encircled by despair, with the most deeply irritating character in the entire trilogy, compared to whom even the Nazg├╗l are starting to look like bosom companions.

And just when you think it couldn't get any worse, ol' TB starts telling jokes. Not just any jokes, mind, but dirty jokes. Dirty jokes a potty-mouthed eight year old, or Jim Davidson, say, would reject for being overly simplistic, downright sexist, homophobic, offensive, and plain un-fun-ny.

Horror upon horror.

If this has melted your brain, or at least caused a syllable 'of inarticulate pain such as 'gah' to pass your lips, then a small particle of the anti-joy I experienced on watching Your Highness has been successfully transmitted to you like a analogy of suck.

I'm going to pick out three reasons why this wretched fantasy stoner 'comedy' fails and then go and enjoy the sunshine.

1. Lack of genre awareness

Fantasy is not a difficult genre to parody. See The Princess Bride, Blackadder, Monty Python's Holy Grail, Pratchett and his horde of followers, Conan The Destroyer. There are a well established set of genre conventions to skewer, and enough serious, or at least intentionally serious, fantasy movies to provide ample fuel for the fire.

On the other hand, you could just make a few lazy nods to the Platonic ideal of an 80's fantasy movie, establish that the protagonist is a Prince on a Quest to defeat an evil Wizard, wish your Master/Servant relationship was as funny as Edmund and Baldrick, and fill up the rest of the film with Carry On gags.

Guess which one Your Highness does.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for in-jokes that only level 10 gnome illusionists would be hip to. It's just hard to shake the suspicion that I'd see more sophisticated deconstructions of the fantasy genre in an episode of Masters of the Universe than you'd get in this film.

And while sex is inherently funny, innuendo does not = instant yucks.

2. Danny McBride

One fantasy cliche Your Highness does play with is the Redemption Arc - the idea that the hero starts as a loser but ends, after twists, turns and varying degrees of luck and personal application, as a winner.

Unfortunately, Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) is such a narcissistic, cowardly, sex-obsessed bore that his transition to hero lacks conviction.

I'm told that Danny is very good in Eastbound & Down at being funny-unlikeable. But the Redemption Arc built into the film doesn't allow him to be the full Edmund Blackadder, and he's not likable enough to pull off the Will Ferrell trick of playing the lovable buffoon.

Danny co-wrote this film as well, which makes him at least partly culpable for my third point.

3. Tread carefully, taboo-busters
 

Much modern comedy seems to draw its energy from saying the unsayable, from pushing the limits of what can be shown on stage or screen.

Two potential problems here, both of which Your Highness has in doubloons:

First, diminishing returns drive desperate men to dross. There's already an EU mountain, a plethora, a mega-snigger of sex jokes in modern comedy films. The only way to compete in this market is to be really good - remember that sex is intrinsically funny - or to be even crasser than your competitors, which is much easier.

Your Highness takes the easy route out of Least Resistance City, and does it about as subtly as female characterization in Tolkien. And gets not one laugh from me. Especially for the pederasty gags.

Second, it's a thin line between the comedy of shock and the comedy of cruelty. And when that cruelty is applied to a particular social group or practice or individual trait, well, I'm tempted to call that prejudice, not taboo-breaking.

And so I'm unsettled by the cultural context which has deposited Your Highness into my cinema in 2011. There are gags in Your Highness which trade without irony on the idea that being gay is in itself inherently funny. And Natalie Portman's role as an adventuress and token strong woman basically serves as a 'beard' for the film to cover up its more misogynistic moments.

Even if this is a misreading of the film's intent, the fact that such a strong misreading is easy to make suggests that Your Highness has bigger problems than intellectual laziness, lack of genre-savviness, miscasting and a poor script.

It's flirting with a dubious world view indeed.