“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

“(500) Days” an inventive, touching look at lost love

500_Days

In "(500) Days," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel discover a harsh truth: Love isn't all you need.

“Next time you look back, I think you should look again.”

There are many memorable lines in “(500) Days of Summer,” Marc Webb’s attentive, carefully crafted ode to 20-something love lost, but none resonate this strongly. Call it “hindsight is 20/20” for the 21st-century indie hipsters. What simple beauty there is in this observation, for who doesn’t see the past through the haze of happiness? Who bothers to remember what actually happened, the ugly parts unpainted, unsanded, unprettied?

Welcome to the universal appeal of “(500) Days of Summer,” a movie about a romance that sours naturally and a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s heard too many pop songs (hint: he loves The Smiths) to believe that can happen. There’s a kind of endearing, tortured earnestness in Levitt’s Tom, who channels all those ideas about love everlasting into the greeting cards he writes. He may own a T-shirt that emblazoned with “love will tear us apart,” but he damn sure doesn’t believe that. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who loves her independence and doesn’t give a fig about soulmates, he’s certain he’s found just what he thinks Ben Braddock did in Mrs. Robinson. And so the exquisite agony begins.

What makes that agony so achingly real, not the slightest bit generic, is the way Webb unfolds Tom and Summer’s story. Much has been written about the way Webb plays with the concept of time in the film’s script, leaping from the beginning of the relationship to the end to the middle with just a screenshot and a number (i.e., Day 1) to guide us. There’s no concealing the fact that this is a commonplace gimmick, but it’s an extremely effective one in a movie about failed love affairs and how we recall them. Does Day 1 really mean more than Day 37, or Day 185, or the last day? Webb suggests not, since our brains capture snapshots, not linear, neatly drawn timelines. Nor do we number the days. The beginning, the end, happy times in the middle — those are the things that stick with us.

There are other things besides the time splicing that Webb, a big-screen novice, does to make “(500) Days” surprising, unusual and unforgettable. Consider a dance sequence — that Levitt, arthouse boy though he is, can cut a rug — after Tom’s first night with Summer. Or a clip where the cityscape of Los Angeles become a crude sketch, fading around Tom’s slumped silhouette. Webb pokes such self-conscious fun at some staples of the romantic dramedy genre that you can’t help but smile. If only it didn’t go so wibbly-wobbly at the en- … oh never mind. For a new director capable of this level of ironic self-awareness and humor, a little forgiveness isn’t out of the question.

Webb’s eye for details, however, is matched by his unusually keen eye for talent. Deschanel’s an obvious and spot-on choice for Summer (she’s lovely and quirky and retro, the Indie Trinity), but Levitt? The really intense, moody guy from “Manic” and “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin”? Any remaining reservations about his talent — sure he’s edgy, but is he leading man material? — evaporate in “(500) Days of Summer.” He finds humor in darker moments and exposed nerves in quieter, happier ones. Tom’s experience with Summer could be cloying or irritating, but Levitt finds the tragedy there and gives us a man who, after years of bad programming, grows up. Watching that transition is one of the chief pleasures of the insightful “(500) Days of Summer,” a look at the ways bad love changes us as much — usually even more — than the love affairs that end with wine and roses.

Other characters pop in and out with insights that nudge Tom along. Notable is Chloe Moretz, who plays Tom’s younger but infinitely smarter sister Rachel. She’s the voice of reason that cuts straight through all his syrupy, sentimental, useless greeting card crap. Wise, too, is Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), who offers another uncomplicated but revolutionary insight of his own: “She’s better than the girl of my dreams,” he says of his girlfriend. “She’s real.” Such wisdom and hope in those words. And if we’re half that smart, that’s exactly what we take away from “(500) Days of Summer.” 

Grade: B+

“Summer” begins July 31

Given all my puffed-up talk about chick flicks, I think it’s time to (whispering) come clean about something.

I’m a sucker for a good indie romcom.

And if said indie stars Zooey Deschanel or Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Well, the Big Giant Head himself couldn’t hold me back.

Thus, it looks like July 31 will be my lucky day, since it’s the (tentative) day that Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” opens in Charlotte, N.C. (Surprise! There are perks in living 29 miles from America’s 18th-largest city.) I’ve had my eyes on “Summer” ever since I heard Levitt and Deschanel were teaming up to play the starcrossed couple in question. I’d have to check with my pal Dear Diary, but I’m pretty sure this will be the best cinematic pairing since Paul and Jason. Levitt has morphed into an actor of formidable talent, making good on the promise he showed in “3rd Rock from the Sun.” (What? He was a teenage and he held his own against John Lithgow. You don’t think that’s impressive?) He consistently chooses difficult, non-mainstream projects — “Brick,” “Manic,” “Mysterious Skin,” “The Lookout” — that show his range. He’ll make for a quirky, rough-about-the-edges leading man. Deschanel has a history of being the best thing in bad (re: “Failure to Launch,” “The New Guy”), strange (“The Good Girl,” “Winter Passing”) or fiercely independent (“All the Real Girls”) movies. If she sings even half of one song, it will make the price of admission worthwhile. 

Still need convincing? Take a gander at ZooJo’s re-enactment of “Sid and Nancy.” If it doesn’t convert you, there’s just no talking to you.

Quick Picks: “Valkyrie,” “Yes Man”

“Valkyrie” (Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson)

In “Tropic Thunder,” he did the unthinkable: resurrected an air-sucking, headed-toward-the-light acting career. Does he do it again in “Valkyrie,” Brian Singer’s tense, understated thriller about a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize control of Germany and wave a white flag to the Allies? Not quite. Then again, Cruise’s in-control performance as party loyalist-turned-traitorous schemer Col. Claus von Stauffenberg isn’t meant for show. Neither is Singer’s somber, commendably even-handed creation . Every scene is measured and precise, planned and executed with military-like precision. The same goes for the film’s best performances — Wilkinson’s buttoned-up, duplicitious Gen. Friedrich Fromm is bone-chilling, while Branagh practically sweats sheer desperation. If it all seems a little too muted and by-the-book, beware: the tension surprises you, and so does “Valkyrie.”

Grade: B+

“Yes Man” (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp)

A movie about a man who says “yes” to every question? Sounds like the makings of a) Eddie Murphy’s moronical, pratfall-heavy next project or b) a tender, smartly observed comedy about life and learning. Wrong. But either movie might be better than the disappointingly blah “Yes Man.” Carrey tries hard as Danny, a sourpuss who keeps life at bay until a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) convinces him to open up. Enter the ever-quirky Deschanel as Allison, Danny’s polar-opposite love interest. Shock of shocks, Deschanel and Carrey have a delightfully peppery chemistry. And Carrey has a zippy rapport with Brit Rhys Darby, who plays Norman, his adorably zany dolt of a boss (think Michael Scott a la “The Office”). But don’t expect the same kind of zing from “Yes Man,” which tries so hard to be ingratiating and cute that it’s about as sincere as, well, a real-life yes man.

Grade: C