To fully appreciate the extreme lowness of “Your Highness,” it’s best to accept that this sometimes witless and sometimes winning comedy has absolutely no socially redeeming value. It begins with grade-school-level graffiti being scrawled across storybook pages and goes up and down from there.
Still, the fun can be infectious -- but then so is the flu.
For maximum midevil [sic] amusement, never forget this is a farce within a farce that neither you nor anyone else drawn to this tawdry tale of the bothered and bewildered Kingdom of Mourne should take seriously.
The primary perpetrators of the swords-and-sandals send-up are James Franco, Natalie Portman and that very naughty boy Danny McBride, a feather pillow of a scatological offender -- fluffy and soft but inclined to slam you over the head with the outrageous nonetheless.
This is one film that truly deserves its R rating. The King’s English has rarely been bawdier or more abused, and there is an ongoing obsession with the male member -- real, imagined, oversized, undersized, overexposed and, in at least one case, painfully parted from its owner. But then ancient warfare is nothing if not a bloody, dirty (use Merriam-Webster’s definitions 1, 2 and 3) mess.
The film is the latest collaboration between old college chums McBride and director David Gordon Green, who last worked together on the fitfully funny stoner action film “Pineapple Express.” That movie starred Franco and Seth Rogen as men on the run, with McBride popping up here and there as more of a footnote. Here he’s front and center as Prince Thadeous, the underachieving and resentful younger brother of Crown Prince Fabious (Franco), who is heroic, battle-tested and blessed with the best hair of anyone in the production.
Written by McBride and Ben Best (“Eastbound & Down,” “The Foot Fist Way”), the film fractures fairy-tale conventions with its preening princes, dastardly warlocks and wizards, dwarfs and dragons, and of course, damsels in undress, um, distress (though to be honest, it’s a bit of both). The writers also play fast and loose with the basics, like plot construction and character development. As a result, some of the bits are nonsensical fun, in the way the absurdly stupid and off-color can be; others play like they were inspired by one too many tokes on a joint of the famously potent Pineapple Express (just an analogy, folks; the writers say they were actually inspired by ‘80s genre flicks such as “Conan the Barbarian” and “Krull”).
In “Your Highness,” knights are nothing without prophecies, swordplay, maidens, villains and four-letter words.
Though the film opens with Thadeous in a dust-up involving dwarfs and illicit sex, the action really begins when the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) snatches the lovely Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) -- Fabious’ one true love. A quest is the only answer, but just as the pampered younger brother fears, a lot of questing takes place in muck. What’s just as murky at times is whether the mayhem that ensues is highly choreographed or just sloppily improvised.
For all the froth, the beauty of the Northern Ireland landscape where the film was shot gets as much attention as the beasties from director of photography Tim Orr, another frequent Green collaborator. Meanwhile, production designer Mark Tildesley (“The Killer Inside Me,” “Pirate Radio”) constructs medieval villages, barbaric fighting arenas and deadly mazes that balance the real and the ridiculous quite nicely.
It’s a playground Green makes full use of. The director has an easy touch when it comes to comedy, which means you can almost sense those moments when the actors give themselves over to the silliness. Though there are not enough of them, that is where the film is at its best and it usually involves McBride, who turns out to be a good foil for just about anyone opposite him.
Portman, despite that shiny new Oscar for the very dark “Black Swan,” turns out to be serious fun as the warrior princess driven to avenge the death of her family, with “Your Highness” showing off her comic prospects far better than her recent rom-com foray in “No Strings Attached.” Franco gives Fabious such a guileless spirit that his shining fabulousness is hard to resist. And watch for the scene-stealing Rasmus Hardiker as Thadeous’ manservant Courtney, the lone voice of reason in this very unreasonable world.
MPAA rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, violence and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In general release