I won’t be the first – but hopefully I’ll be the last – to say that David Gordon Green has had a strange career. What started with a trilogy of breathtakingly beautiful, sensitively performed indie-dramas had started to fizzle with the generically Sundance-ian Snow Angels in 2007. His career was then rescued/ diverted by Apatow Inc. when he helmed the ‘surprise’ hit Pineapple Express the following year. Playing the Falstaff to Green’s Prince Henry, actor/ writer Danny McBride led his old film school buddy down a broader, more successful and apparently far more bacchanalian path. As with most indulgences it was undoubtedly more fun to partake in than to witness.
Such is the case with Your Highness, or at least I had thought so. Settling in just before the opening credits, my friend and fellow Trash Humpers enthusiast Charlie Fleming and I found ourselves swallowed by a sea of cinemagoers. Granted, this was a Saturday night and we were at one of the most crowded social gathering places in the city – but still. As early as Friday afternoon, Deadline Hollywood had deemed Your Highness to be an irredeemable flop and the critics had long concurred. The masses were not so easily swayed.
I do not wish to cast aspersions upon my fellow Los Angelenos – God knows the entertainment industry does that enough; has there ever been a more self-loathing city in modern history? – but we were buffeted on every side by young men in their early-to-mid 20s wearing baseball caps. Indoors. At night. There was a surprisingly strong contingent of young females filling the stadium seats as well, although it did appear that most people of either gender were light skinned. The sole exception was a middle-aged African-American gentleman who was seated to my right. He was also wearing a baseball cap. I mention him not to throw the racial equation of the screening into stark relief – the only characters of color in Your Highness are lecherous wizards or horny Minotaurs – but because this guy next to me understood David Gordon Green’s film on a much deeper level than I, or my friend Charlie, or Jett or Gareth did.
In fact, I would argue that he (let’s call him ‘Mike’) had the perfect viewing experience. As Jett so ably argued in TFT 172 there are joke constructs as opposed to actual jokes laced throughout the dialogue. Mike chuckled audibly at nearly every one of these joke constructs. And believe me, they were legion. Somewhere in the middle of reel two or so I heard Mike go quiet. Peeking discretely to my left I noticed he had gently nodded off. Good for him. This was around the time Justin Theroux got the biggest laugh of the film by cracking his neck and spitting out that classic enjambment “…motherfucker.” These are the jokes, people!
Sometime around the beginning of the fourth reel, and the arrival of Natalie Portman – winning the film’s MVP award along with Charles Dance for simply playing it straight – Mike was aroused from his slumber. Pun intended! Natalie Portman: quite attractive. Anyway, Mike coughed up a few more mellifluous mumbles before going quite again. Nap #2 had commenced. At around the time that Danny McBride ironically slaughters the becalmed Minotaur (it’s funny cuz he’s the hero and the Minotaur no longer posed a danger, see?), I heard an unusual noise emitting from my buddy Mike’s seat. What was it? You guessed it: peanuts! Mike had wisely wrapped his own snack and was chowing down simultaneous with Mr. McBride’s ‘daring’ and ‘very exciting’ rescue of his brother (the aforementioned, omnipresent Mr. Franco).
During the film’s ‘deliberately’ bad climatic action set-piece, Mike wiped off his hands with napkins he brought from home and set about either texting, Twittering or e-mailing. Or maybe he was streaming ‘Krull’ off Netflix, I don’t know. Either way, Mike was briefly upstaged at this point by a woman sitting behind Charlie. After FRANCO has ruefully slain a knight formerly loyal to him, the knight plainly declares his long silent love for him. Franco responds with an equivocal “Oh.” The aforementioned woman sitting behind Charlie was bolder in her proclamation: “OH, GROSS!” Mike still had an ace in the hole, though. With the climax tidily wrapped up (and the film’s sole moment of true hilarity out of the way – Justin Theroux shouting “JUMPING!” while doing just that), Mike made a move that frankly astonished me. With at least ten to fifteen minutes left in the film, he closed his phone, repacked his peanuts and got up and left. At 85 minutes in! It was all I could do not to give him a spontaneous standing ovation.
The rest of the crowd, however, was in no mood for restraint. Despite watching a dreadfully written and performed quasi comedy (or a ‘brilliant anti-comedy’ if you’re an asshole like me) and having sat through the first twenty minutes with the house lights on, it was wall-to-wall laughter. Nearly every single joke construct resulted in the desired effect. And as I said, these joke constructs were interwoven into otherwise benign dialogue as easily as dropping a curse word into a regular sentence. In fact, that was the precise joke construct! In fact, it played so well I started to wonder whether the flaw lay in the stars, the audience or in myself. Reflecting upon my screening of Drive Angry Shot in 3D a month earlier confirmed my suspicions.
It turns out the Franco-Cage connection between these films goes somewhat deeper, at least on an extremely tangential, personal level. The afternoon before the ill-fated Oscars broadcast hosted by soon-to-be public enemy #1 James Franco, my friends and I resolved to see Drive Angry. My girlfriend and I had seen Season of the Witch at Grauman’s only a few weeks earlier, so this felt like a reprieve of sorts. Our initial plan to see the film in the jaw-droppingly stupid D-Box seats at the Mann Chinese 6 were quickly thwarted. Not only was Drive Angry not playing in those dumb vibrating chairs, nothing was! Lunacy.
Consoling ourselves with the above-average 3D project of the Grove, we were able to pick premium seats in the middle of one family and a couple of stragglers. This was a Sunday afternoon. People were not too busy to see what had been advertised as an extravagantly crappy movie – they were actively avoiding it. What did they miss? A little bit of everything: weird hand sex, William Fichtner delivering an Academy Award worthy performance as a stock character, Nicolas Cage getting shot in the fact at point-blank range, Nicolas Cage having sex with women his age, Amber Heard murdering police officers to help a dead man she just met, Nicolas Cage staring at a barrel of fire in the middle of a very hot desert, William Fichtner sighing hilariously as his car takes a long, long fall off a bridge, two teens on bicycles who instantly smoke pot the second they stop moving, a Southern white man with Benecio Del Toro’s haircut, the attempted sacrifice of a baby, ugly, naked extras, Nicolas Cage telling a woman he ‘never disrobes before gunplay, a deep album cut off a Meatloff album, Nicolas Cage drinking beer out of a human skull, the film turning into a light-hearted buddy-film in its closing moments and the most spectacularly avant-garde, mind-blowing, WTF death scene I’ve maybe ever seen. It is involves Nicolas Cage shooting the Southern white man with Benecio Del Toro’s haircut with a handgun called ‘the God Killer’ and special effects worthy of a 1990′s PC screensaver.
This is not faint praise. This is recognizing when a movie knows exactly what it is and it can do. This is Nicolas Cage reminding the world that there is more to being a movie star than acting talent, good looks and a canny selection of screen roles. There must always been an ‘otherness’ to stars. In the case of Nicolas Cage, this ‘otherness’ is the sight of a genuine lunatic displaying at mastery at pretending to be other people. The fact that he often chooses to pretend to be the same sort of person should not count against him as an actor, a bankable star or a human being. But of course it does.
The public rejection of both Drive Angry as a film and Nicolas Cage as a cinematic commodity could be seen in microcosm that day. His last genuine hit was National Treasure – Book of Secrets way back in 2007. He’s made nine films since then, to varying degrees of middling success or outright failure. That afternoon at the Grove made it easy to see why. While me and my film-school friends were laughing deliriously at the sight (and sound) of Cage’s demented stoicism, we might as well have been surrounded by crickets and tumbleweeds. I’d like to believe that we ‘got it’ in a way that eluded the other audience members that day. But if ‘Mike’ taught me anything, it’s that the average film-goer often understands a movie in a far more elegant fashion than the snobs. I have no idea what the silent majority surrounding us thought of Drive Angry Shot in 3D. But I can imagine that they haven’t thought twice about it.