Your Highness is an excessive medieval muddle, Super soars into dark territory

by Mark Burger

If not for the appeal and zeal of its cast, Your Highness would come uncomfortably close to being a disaster. A sophomoric romp through medieval trappings, the film is lackadaisical, loose (too much so, as it turns out) and lackluster. The end result isn’t disaster but disappointment, given the talent involved.

Your Highness is the latest film from writer/ director David Gordon Green, a graduate of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking, who first made a name for himself with such soulful indies as George Washington (2000) — which was filmed in Winston-Salem — and All the Real Girls (2003), before hitting boxoffice gold with the irreverent 2008 comedy Pineapple Express.

Sticking with a successful formula, financially speaking, Your Highness definitely follows in the farcical footsteps of that film, and reunites Green with fellow UNCSA alumni Ben Best (co-writer), cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Danny McBride, here enjoying his first big-studio lead.

McBride plays Thadeous, a bumbling and boorish prince who begrudgingly lives in the shadow of his chivalrous older brother Fabious (James Franco). When Fabious’ beloved, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), is abducted by the nefarious Leezar (Justin Theroux), Thadeous and his aide-de-camp Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) join Fabious’ noble quest to rescue her, eventually joined by the fierce but foxy Isabel (Natalie Portman).

Charles Dance, as King Tallious, looks extremely out of place here but plays it straight, as do Toby Jones as the duplicitous Julie and Damian Lewis as Fabious’ treacherous sidekick Boremont. McBride, with his medieval mullet, plays it anything but straight. He can be very funny, but there’s only so much he can do.

The actors, some adopting faux British accents — the unsteadier the better — all appear to be enjoying themselves. Whether the audience will feel likewise is less certain, as the film coasts on a succession of gags, each one designed to outdo (and out-gross) the last one. Some are amusing, a few are genuinely inspired and the vast majority is excessive, both in vulgarity and execution. The special effects on display here, particularly in a spectacular battle with a fire-breathing dragon, are so good as to dampen the comedic aspects. They’re too good, and sometimes at odds with the overall intentioned tone of the film.

Whatever one thought of Pineapple Express, it had a story and a point. Your Highness doesn’t really have either. Its very nature as a throwaway comedy leaves it with nothing to fall back on when the momentum sputters, which it does frequently.

Opening Friday, Super is a brash, blistering superhero satire that marks yet another big-screen success for writer/director James Gunn, whose 2006 horror spoof Slither never found the theatrical audience it deserved but was resurrected as a cult favorite on homevideo.

Rainn Wilson, nicely occupying center stage throughout, plays Frank, an average guy whose mundane world comes crashing down when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a smarmy strip-club owner who dabbles in crime. Frank’s repeated, pathetic efforts to win Sarah back eventually lead Jacques to have him thrashed, although he did warn him.

Frank does what any (ab)normal person would do — he decides to fight crime in the guise of the “Crimson Bolt,” a vigilante-style defender of the people, dispensing justice with his handy monkey wrench, with which he bashes evildoers into submission.

Our hero is joined in his endeavors by Libby (Ellen Page), who works at the local comicbook shop and becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming a superhero herself. She christens herself “Boltie” and proves indispensable in aiding Frank, whose heroic intentions are sometimes compromised by his haplessness. Page bids fair to steal the entire movie with a fierce, full-tilt performance that again marks her as one of the best actresses of her generation.

Super follows last year’s like-minded Kick-Ass and Defendor, in which average folks turned into superheroes (often minus the “super”) to combat evil. But Super is the edgiest and most outrageous of them, with startling bursts of violence and black comedy. Cool costume or not, being a hero hurts — as Frank and Libby discover — and sometimes very badly.

Wilson makes Frank likable and sympathetic, but the character is also clearly delusional and quite likely deranged. That his delusions are shared by others, particularly Libby, lends the film a wonderfully cockeyed, yet sometimes very dark view of the world.

Slither veterans Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry and Nathan Fillion (as a Christian TV superhero who inspires Frank) have their moments to shine, as do Tyler (her best role in a while) and Bacon, the latter reveling in Jacques’ sleaziness. Keep an eye out too for William Katt and Linda Cardellini in brief appearances. Gunn, a proud graduate of the Troma school of filmmaking, even works in a cameo for Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, who knows a thing or two about superhero spoofs, having helmed the 1985 cult classic The Toxic Avenger.