One of the great mysteries of popular cinema is how cult movies form. The only real requirement for cult status is having a long-term, obsessive fan base. More often a cult film will be a commercial or critical failure, but that is not always the case – John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980) was a sizeable hit but still generates a healthy line in midnight and costumed screenings. Quality honestly does not seem to enter the equation. In the end all you need is a film that motivates a minority of the audience to enjoy watching it over and over again.
David Gordon Green’s 2011 comedy Your Highness is a wonderful cult film, although as far as I am aware it may only be a cult of two. I like it. My wife likes it. We probably watch it once a year and laugh like drains. I honestly could not tell you what its creators thought of it, whether Green, co-writer and star Danny McBride, or actors James Franco, Natalie Portman, and Justin Theroux. I can tell you what a mass audience thought of it, simply from the facts that it grossed US$28m against a US$50m budget and that the aggregated critics of Rotten Tomatoes gave it 28 per cent.
The film sees McBride play Thadeous, a surly and childish prince in the land of Mourne. He is resentful of his heroic brother Fabious (Franco) and a disappointment to his father King Tallious. When the evil wizard Leezar (Theroux) kidnaps Fabious’ virgin bride Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), Thadeous is forced to accompany Fabious, servant Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), and mysterious archer Isobel (Portman) on a quest to rescue her.
Viewers familiar with the works of Green, Franco, and McBride will be able to predict much of Your Highness‘ content. Jokes about smoking marijuana figure heavily, as do crass one-liners about sex and masturbation. An awful lot of the film relies on stereotypical high fantasy characters incongruously saying “fuck”. There is a minotaur with an erection. On paper a lot of the film reads like an absolute train wreck, and in all fairness to it much of the film is an absolute train wreck. It is also a little uncomfortable watching Franco, who continues to function under a cloud of alleged inappropriate behaviour.
Yet there is also this weirdly prestigious supporting cast, which includes the likes of Damian Lewis, Toby Jones, Charles Dance, and Horrible Histories alumnus Simon Farnaby. Even the female lead is Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman – and for the life of you, you will never work out why she chose to make Your Highness as a follow-up to Black Swan.
There is also genuinely good production design and visual effects, which is both well designed and well realised. . A greater number of practical effects are employed than one might expect to see in a contemporary Hollywood fantasy. That actually gives the film a nice tactile aesthetic that harks back to many fantasy films of the 1980s. Take out all of the dick jokes and Your Highness would probably make for the world’s first genuinely good Dungeons & Dragons movie. (Hell, if your role-playing group is anything like mine, leave the dick jokes in). Steve Jablonsky’s over-the-top orchestral score is also wonderfully on point.
In the end though, it is all about the dialogue. Here is the secret to a genuine cult comedy. It never works best the first time. Think of any film like this: The Blues Brothers, Office Space, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s not the plots you love; it’s the dialogue you quote. You wait for the characters to say them. You quietly recite them yourself. You buy them on t-shirts like slogans. You quote them with fellow fans as a shibboleth. Every time you rewatch the film, the importance of those one-liners become more important. Just as you have your ‘We’re on a mission from God,’ or your ‘I believe you have my stapler,’ or even your ‘It’s not easy having a good time – even smiling makes my face ache,’ I live for ‘No, not triangle face, it scares me!,’ ‘The fuckening has begun!,’ and – of course – the immortal ‘Julie has no dick!’
I swear to you this one grows on you over time. Give it another chance. Or not. Either way, Your Highness is comedy movie magic, motherfucker.