Here’s to brave adventures. Paul, meet Your Highness.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are best known for their genre spoofs-cum-homages Shaun of the Dead (zombies) and Hot Fuzz (buddy cops), both of which Pegg co-wrote with director Edgar Wright. This time, Pegg and Frost co-wrote Paul (2011), and, in approaching director Greg Mottola ( Superbad, Adventureland), said they wanted a road movie with the feel of an independent film. Since Mottola had written and directed a quirky road movie called The Daytrippers in 1996, that didn’t seem a stretch.
The wild card was a computer-generated lead character whose existence increased the budget by about half. As the alien Paul makes his first appearance, Mottola jokes on the DVD’s commentary track that the scene cost more than his first two films combined.
The result is a mash-up of genres. There’s the tale of the British fanboys (Pegg, Wright) who come to the United States to attend Comic-Con and tour the country’s most famous UFO sites in their camper van. They trade banter, have an awkward encounter at a truck stop with two surly good ol’ boys, and meet a Bible-thumping trailer-park operator (Kristen Wiig) who is keen to see the world.
But the film also takes the path of Starman and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, in which the goal becomes to get the alien to a site from which he can scoot home. Paul, voiced as the soul of reason by Superbad actor and co-writer Seth Rogen, has misunderstood the government’s motives in sequestering him since he crashed his spaceship in 1947. He has just escaped one step ahead of the authorities, whose lead agent (Jason Bateman) has the all-business demeanour of Men in Black’s Tommy Lee Jones.
The mash-up leads, happily if rudely, to Wiig’s unexpected delight in swearing for the first time, at length and most inventively. The help-the-alien path leads, less happily, to an overlong finale in which every character must be accounted for and every E.T. button pushed. But a couple of those buttons work well – the fate of Bateman’s ultimate boss is satisfyingly brisk – and the film as a whole has an amiable, loopy grace to it.
Your Highness (2011) has a similar back story. Danny McBride co-wrote it as a vehicle for himself, and found a kindred spirit in director David Gordon Green ( Pineapple Express), a school chum. They set out to make a comic adventure inspired by 1980s sword-and-sorcery films such as Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster, but with a foul mouth and penis jokes.
And, as Mottola did with Paul, they spent a lot of money, much of it on elaborate medieval castles and labyrinths that Terry Gilliam would kill for. McBride plays Thadeous, a jealous, cowardly prince whose elder brother Fabious (James Franco in over-the-top hero mode) gets all the glory. When Fabious’s fiancée (Zooey Deschanel playing sweetly dumb) is abducted by agents of an evil wizard (Justin Theroux) out to rule the world by sorcery, Fabious and a reluctant Thadeous (think Bob Hope, ready to run from every fight) embark on a quest to save her.
They keep running into Natalie Portman, clearly enjoying herself as a warrior on a mission. The rest of the cast is similarly engaged – Charles Dance playing it straight as the king, Toby Jones as a smirking courtier – but comedy honours go to Rasmus Hardiker as Thadeous’s servant, seldom fazed but a master of the deadpan reaction.
Still – and I can’t stress this enough – know what you’re in for. The film aims low for much of its humour, seldom far from the groin. Deschanel gets it right when, in the DVD’s extras, she calls the film “kind of like a dirty Princess Bride.” An early scene with a perverted version of Star Wars’s Yoda tests the viewer’s willingness to go along for the ride. Those unprepared to enter into that spirit, or at least tolerate it for the film’s many other dividends, would be wise to stick with the un-dirty Princess Bride.
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