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Column Fri Apr 08 2011
I'll admit, I was stunned at my reaction to David Gordon Green's latest comedy (following Pineapple Express) Your Highness, because every fiber of my being told me going in that I was going to really like this movie. And then in scene after scene, I found myself searching high and low (questing, if you will) for laughs. In my humble opinion, Green hasn't made anything but great movies, beginning with 2000's George Washington and continuing on through All the Pretty Girls (which co-stars Your Highness actors Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel), Undertow, Snow Angels (perhaps my personal favorite), and a half-dozen episodes of the fantastic HBO series "Eastbound and Down."
Everything about his latest seems so promising, not the least of which is his cast: James Franco, McBride, Deschanel, Natalie Portman, Toby Jones and Justin Theroux, to name but a few. The story seemed perfect for someone like me who grew up watching 1980s fantasy films that found ways to mix swordplay, mythological creatures, out-of-place technology, magic, and a moral code that was struggling to keep society together. Two prince brothers, Fabious (Franco) and Thadeous (McBride, sporting Mel Gibson's Lethal Weapon mullet), grew up somewhat at odds, since their father, the king, has clearly favored the heroic first born Fabious, who loves his stoner brother, despite his shortcomings. When Belladonna (Deschanel), the woman Fabious plans to marry, is kidnapped by the evil warlock Leezar (Theroux, in fine form, channeling the movements and hairstyle of Gary Oldman's Dracula), the brothers agree to seek her out for rescue together.
At each stop on their quest, they encounter strange creatures, danger, and in one case, they gain a partner in their quest, Isabel (Portman), who is also out to kill Leezar. Make no mistake, Your Highness is a beautiful-looking work, with great costumes, sweeping cinematography and solid special effects (the pot-smoking old wizard is an especially cool bit of animatronic work), but something here simply doesn't work. For a movie whose very title implies a stoner epic, there's very little drug-related humor of any kind. But I'm not sure that would have solved the problem. McBride and his co-writer Ben Best (they also co-wrote The Foot Fist Way with Jody Hill) are very smart guys writing about kind of dumb people, and they do this better than just about anybody else. But not everyone in Your Highness is dumb, and maybe that's why it falls short.
There are a couple of bright spots. Theroux is so loaded with scenery-chewing passion that he just forces our eyes right to him. He can do as much with a grand gesture or threatening command as he can with a more subdued, under-his-breath delivery. He's great in this movie, and clearly not in it enough. I can honestly say I couldn't spot anything specifically wrong with either Franco or McBridges performances. I liked that Franco plays things seriously, while McBride is the ceaseless commentator, extraordinary vulgarian, and self-aggrandizing asshole. The film's secret weapons are the brothers' man servants, Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) and Julie (Toby Jones), who say and do the most bizarre, often sexually inappropriate, things men can do to protect their masters. As good as those two are, the women in Your Highness don't fare as well. Portman looks as beautiful as always, but just delivers her ridiculously serious lines, adding no real value to the film. Deschanel is barely in the movie, so she certainly doesn't cause the film any real damage.
This is a film whose weaknesses are difficult to pinpoint, but their effects are felt throughout the work. It has its moments, for sure; the scene with the minotaur might go down in history. Maybe it was that the relationship between the brothers, which seemed to center so much on how much they bicker that the plot ground to a halt whenever their fighting began. I wasn't against the more modern curse words and expressions being slipped into the dialogue, but that didn't necessarily make the movie any funnier. Part of the problem is that the films that Your Highness is poking fun at don't need the help. Movie such as Krull are pretty damn funny all by themselves, with their searing pomposity and overbearing earnestness. It actually hurt me to watch the talented people in front of and behind the cameras on Your Highness miss the mark wide. What's more disheartening is that, if the film fails, it will discourage studios from taking chances and spending money on risk-taking movies like this one. I may not have responded to Your Highness, but I'd defend Green and McBride's right to make it. I just wish the result had been a better movie.
The only way allow yourself to enjoy this remake of the classic 1981 comedy as much as you possibly can is to completely forget that the Dudley Moore/Liza Minnelli/John Gielgud original even exists. This is not always easy since every time Russell Brand pretends to be drunk, it sounds like he's doing a Dudley Moore impersonation. The newer Arthur isn't helped by its PG-13 rating, which it wears like a comedy straight-jacket. A few funny moments squeak out from time to time, but the absolutely vicious humor from the original wouldn't be allowed to show its face outside an R-rated environment. And that's a shame, because what's here could have been so much better, especially with the talent involved.
Perhaps the only bigger crime than making Arthur PG-13 is forcing Russell Brand into that restricted mold. Brand is a vulgarian of the highest order, and although he is playing a drunken whore-monger in this film, he's the most lovable one I've ever come into contact with. In many ways, Brand is the perfect man to fill these decidedly larger shoes. He's already built up this partying persona and has a fully realized reputation as a man who once indulged in illegal substances regularly and slept with as many women as he could lay his eyes upon. Unfortunately, THAT version of Brand has already been fully utilized in a little movie called Get Him To the Greek (after Forgetting Sarah Marshall). So what we get in Arthur is considerably dialed-back Brand, who still manages to be both funny and sweet with a surprising consistency.
Brand and director Jason Winer (a first-time filmmaker who has directed a great many episodes of "Modern Family") have the benefit of a great cast to keep things moving. In an interesting but appropriate twist, Helen Mirren takes over as Arthur's nanny Hobson, and is quite funny with her dry humor and nasty words for any and all of Arthur's slutty girlfriends. Jennifer Garner is on hand as Susan, a power- and money-hungry heiress who Arthur's mother (Geraldine James) has selected for him to marry. Garner might be the weakest link the film, simply because she's overplaying the psychotic tendencies of Susan. Susan's father, Burt, is played by the wonderfully gruff Nick Nolte, who might have also benefited from that R rating. Luis Guzman is so dialed back as Arthur's driver, Bitternman, he almost goes invisible. But he has a couple of great, quieter scenes.
The real find here, for those who didn't see Greenberg or any of her many mumblecore films, is Greta Gerwig as Naomi, an "unofficial" tour guide who Arthur meets in Grand Central Station, and with whom he quickly becomes enamored. Just an ordinary girl from Queens who takes care of her father, Naomi is not a flake, but she's also not afraid to let her imagination run wild. Her world of working to earn a living doesn't quite fit in with Arthur's -- he of the never work, buy whatever you like school of life. But we, like Arthur, are charmed by Naomi's sensibilities and spirit. Plus, the two together are actually allowed to have nice conversations that are funny without always being joke, joke, joke.
But we all know that Arthur the raging drunk is way more fun than when he, for example, attends AA meetings. Do we really want to see that? Does that add anything to this movie other than some sort of false sense of redemption? Do we want that or more shots of Arthur dressed as Batman ramming the Batmobile into the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street. Now that's comedy! The bottom line is that Arthur works in odd places. This is one of those rare instances when the romance doesn't interfere with the plot. The scenes between Brand and Gerwig were among my favorites, even when they are slightly contrived (a scene in an emptied-out Grand Central Station jumps to mind). But the more outrageous stuff with Susan throwing herself at Arthur sink like a stone. Brand is working extraordinarily hard to make it all come together, and more often than not, he succeeds -- but only just.
In case I'm not being clear, this review just passes for a recommendation. Although most of my good feelings about Arthur come from having not grown tired of Brand's schtick yet. I think the guy is a real talent, especially at improv and making himself look physically goofy. Who knows? In five years, I might be sick of the man, but right now, his natural gifts pushed me just on this side of liking Arthur.
I love films that look at the commonplace -- and let's face it, superhero movies are commonplace these days -- through skewed lenses that somehow open up endless possibilities as to just how totally fucked up something traditionally good can get. Although Christopher Nolan's version of Batman hints at a kind of fractured mind behind the cowl, writer-director James Gunn's Super is an entirely dark, even mentally broken work. It places those without powers who don masks and tights a half-step away from serial killers and religious zealots who kill in the name of God.
Foregoing his better-known comedy muscles, Rainn Wilson (The Rocker, "The Office") plays Frank D'Arbo, a short-order cook whose seemingly safe, secure world is shattered when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) is lured away by smalltime gangster and drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon, loving life in full-on asshole mode). So overcome with grief over this change of events, Frank seeks comfort in his favorite religious television programming, a superhero show called "The Holy Avenger" (the title character is played with apt humility by Nathan Fillion). After a profound vision visits Frank, he decides to become costumed hero The Crimson Bolt. His initial mission is not simply to fight crime, but also to right daily wrongs committed by people who refuse to accept life's unwritten social contract. A particularly brutal beat down (by the Bolt's chosen weapon, a pipe wrench) happens when someone cuts in line in front of Frank at a movie theater. I get that.
Frank seeks advice on being a hero from comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page), who digs the challenge of educating a man completely unaware of the conventions of comic books. The Crimson Bolt eventually develops something of a cult following in his town, even though Frank's ultimate goal in becoming this vigilante is to fulfill his God-given quest to save his wife. It doesn't take long for Libby to figure out what Frank is up to, and before long the Crimson Bolt has a sidekick named Boltie, who seems even crazier and more reckless than he is.
Gunn is no stranger to turning genre film's inside out or tackling sacred cultural cows. As a writer, he wrote such successful works as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake and both Scooby Doo films, and as a filmmaker, his Slither is quite simply one of the most entertaining icky monster movie I've seen in the last 10 years or more. But with Super, Gunn enters a realm I hesitate putting a label on. Maybe you'd call it maturity, but the movie doesn't exactly like the product of a fully mature mind. At the same time, there's a dark and deeply disturbing streak that runs right through the middle of this work. Frank's adventures could have easily been played for laughs, but Gunn is more interested in cracking open the skull (literally at times) of a man who feels he has the moral duty to decide who gets a beat down and who doesn't.
Of course, along with this more serious thread that runs through Super, we must also remember that Gunn arose from the Troma Studio system and wrote Tromeo and Juliet, still one of the finest works made under the Troma banner. So when he sees the opportunity to take things right up the line of good taste and then drop kick them right over that line, he goes for it. But those moments are many of the film's most memorable. If you feel fairly certain that just the very realistic sound of a pipe wrench on skull would be too much for you to handle, such moments are simply the entry fee into some much rougher territory in this film. Still, along with moments of excruciating violence are some beautifully realized psychological drama, and Wilson is surprisingly effective pulling it off.
Although I'm sure it won't be, Super deserves to be placed in the pantheon of great and inventive superhero movies. It's subversive edge goes even further astray than Kick Ass, and its journey into the altered mind of a man driven to somewhat heroic acts is as rooted in pain as Batman or Spider-Man or a dozen other costumed individuals. Go see Super for the blood and insane behavior; go again for what lies beneath. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
To read my exclusive interview with Super writer-director James Gunn, go to Ain't It Cool News.
And as an added bonus, for those of you who come to the Music Box Theatre and pay money to see Super on its opening day, Friday, April 8, one of the film's stars, the great Michael Rooker, will be on hand to do some intros and Q&As, with yours truly moderating. All the details you need are also at Ain't It Cool News. Hope to see you there.