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“Your Highness” marks new low for David Gordon Green

Portman, McBride, Franco and Deschanel marvel at just how bad "Your Highness" really is.

It’s a simple question not of weight ratios, but of the law of averages. After a string of successes, director David Gordon Green was due for a miss. “Your Highness,” Danny McBride and Ben Best’s surprisingly unoriginal and unfunny attempt at a medieval spoof, is certainly a miss. In fact, considering that Green directed the wonderful indie gem “All the Real Girls” and the hysterical pot comedy “Pineapple Express,” this film is a Trojan Rabbit of a miss. A miss so large that an African swallow and a European swallow working in tandem could not carry it. Not even Ahchoo’s Air Jordans could help Gordon run away from it.

These “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” allusions are unfair. No film has topped “Holy Grail” in its madcap send-up of medieval culture. And McBride and Best do not try to model “Your Highness” after this comedy classic, so comparison is unwanted. But I don’t care. Given the creativity of Best and McBride’s “The Foot Fist Way” and McBride’s genius line delivery, there’s no excuse for this kind of aimlessness. Even aimlessness could be excused if “Your Highness” had a little satire or more than, say, three scenes that induced more than a polite chuckle. But the film is curiously stale, flat, unfunny and uninspired — a lethal combination. A greater crime than any of these is the general listlessness of the performances. Only Natalie Portman, as a fierce, vengeance-obsessed female warrior, and Justin Theroux, as an articulate sorcerer with outrageous hair, register a pulse. Franco’s acting is on par with his recent performance (or non-performance) at the Academy Awards. McBride, who made magic (and a lot of roaches) with Franco and Seth Rogen in “Pineapple Express,” couldn’t look more disinterested. He sleepwalks through the entire movie, which is cause for concern. If the prospect of making out with Natalie Portman dressed as Xena: Warrior Princess can’t put some pep in a guy’s step, he’s beyond help. Or dead.

The plot of “Your Highness,” however, is not totally beyond help, though it isn’t particularly earth-shattering. McBride and Franco play Thadeous and Fabious, respectively, the very different sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance). It’s a dichotomy as old as time: Little brother Thadeous is a scoundrel and a layabout, while Fabious is a handsome, dashing warrior beloved by all. During his latest quest, Fabious rescued a winsome virgin named Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, who, as usual, appears really, really bored) that he plans to marry and promptly deflower. But malevolent sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) has plans for a grand “fuckening” of his own and kidnaps Belladonna, forcing Thadeous, his effeminate squire (oh! a girly squire! how original!) Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) and Fabious on a hasty quest to rescue Belladonna. Along the way, they encounter Isabel (Portman), a tough-talking fighter out to kill Leezar for murdering her family. Portman is intense enough that she seems somewhat out of place in “Your Highness,” though every zany romp — even bad ones — needs a good straight man. It helps if the straight man has dainty cleavage.

There’s also a smattering of sorta-amusing secondary characters, like Julie (Toby Jones), a devious little person hiding absolutely nothing in his trousers, and Boremount (Damian Lewis), Fabious’ right-hand man who is furious that he’s been replaced by the cowardly Thadeous. (It would not be considered a spoiler to reveal that Boremount is, like, so gay for Fabious, because who didn’t see that coming? Anyone?) Not to be outdone is Timotay Dungeon Master (Tobias Winter), who presides over a Roman-esque legion of forest warriors and commands an atrociously rendered CGI dragon creature — all while sporting a Flock of Seagulls ‘do and an adult diaper. He’s bizarre enough to draw a few laughs, but most of the film’s genuine humor belongs to Theroux. He milks his role as Leezar for all it’s worth, spouting off lines like “magic, motherfucker” and leering impressively. Without Theroux, aside from the odd sight gag (take note of Thadeous’ unorthodox quest trophy), there wouldn’t be many reasons to laugh in “Your Highness.” If anything, when we consider “Your Highness” as a waste of Gordon Green’s talent, suicidal depression is far more likely.

Grade: D

Clooney, Reitman hit new heights in “Up in the Air”

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) discovers life's better with company (Farmiga) in "Up in the Air."

Sit next to the sharply dressed Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on a plane and he’d gladly unpack his carry-on of inspirational messages. You look like you need to talk, he’d say, and he’d be right because what traveler wouldn’t welcome a pleasant distraction from the crying babies, that pinging “fasten seatbelt” sign? Ryan Bingham is nothing if not an expert at diverting attention.

In truth, Ryan’s actually a professional distractor, though his business card proclaims his job title to be “termination consultant” or something similar in corporate speak. And in Jason Reitman’s witty, subtle and deeply felt “Up in the Air,” that’s just what Ryan does: fly around the country and distract people from reality — he’s firing them from their jobs because their bosses lack the guts — with chatter about new opportunities. The way he sees it, firings and layoffs translate into something valuable: the promise of motion. In fact, Ryan adopts “moving is living” as his credo of sorts. And Reitman structures “Up in the Air,” his witty, remarkably accomplished third film, around this mantra, not because he swallows it as gospel truth but because he understands how people can use — and abuse — the idea.

Ryan, played with maturity and grace by Clooney, deserves lifetime membership in the second group. The only time he sits still is on a plane. He lives out of compact suitcase, spending precious little time in his blank Omaha, Neb., apartment, and finds comfort in the sterility of rental cars and hotel suites. He believes he’s happy flitting from city to city, pushing toward a certifiably insane goal of 1 million frequent flyer miles, until two things happen to change his mind. Or, rather, two people happen. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, divine as always), a bold and sexy corporate traveler who informs Ryan: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” She seems a saucy match for Ryan, and he enjoys her company so much he begins to question his in-flight lifestyle.

Second comes Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a cutthroat Cornell grad with big ideas about streamlining (i.e., taking it online) the process Ryan’s perfected. He’s horrified by her suggestion his methods are obsolete and takes her on the road, where she sees, really sees, that the printed names on a list belong to people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but pay close attention to Kendrick’s expression as she sits in on firing after firing. There are so many emotions — indifference, surprise, horror — at play on her face that Kendrick turns these moving scenes into an epiphany. Though the experience affects her profoundly, she’s too stubborn to admit it. But Ryan observes the change in her eyes, and what he sees makes him own up to a distasteful truth: he long ago stopped buying the platitudes he’s selling. Maybe he never did.

Gently observant films like this require strong writing and performances captivating enough to make us want to investigate, to unearth the subtleties.  In this regard, “Up in the Air” plays like Ensemble Acting 101; put simply, the acting is superb. Every actor, from those onscreen 10 minutes — Danny McBride injects humor as Ryan’s jittery future brother-in-law, while Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s estranged sister, radiates hope for reconciliation — to Clooney and Farmiga, rise to the challenge. Farmiga proves, as she did in “Down to the Bone” and “The Departed,” that she is an actress of exceptional warmth, and her chemistry with Clooney is palpable. Kendrick is a find, an actress possessed of the kind of talent that belies her 24 years; she makes us feel the sharp distress of her growing pains.

Turns as strong as these might lose steam without an achoring performance, and Clooney provides a measured but impressive one. He’s one of the rare actors who has allowed age to improve his talent. Clooney knows there’s more to Ryan than gimmicky speeches, and he hints at those depths with his changing eyes, his face, his body language. There were no shortcuts; he had to do some living to be ready for this performance. He did, he is and he finds good company in Reitman, who, with “Up in the Air,” has created the magnum opus of his young career and a snapshot of recession-era America. 

Grade: A