The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Your Highness

Written by Jim Holden.

Photo from the article In terms of auteur filmmaking, 2011 has already been described as the year when 3D went ‘highbrow’, and we might say that it also seems a time for shifts in directorial focus more generally. First, the comic indie director David O. Russell released The Fighter (2010) in UK cinemas: a straight-ahead biopic of the boxer Mickey Ward. Then came Darren Aronofsky, who gave us the uncharacteristic Black Swan. These youngish filmmakers were both lavished with critical acclaim for their new directions, receiving Oscar nominations for best director to boot. Then there was Michel Gondry, whose Green Hornet, although full of his usual visual flourishes, constituted a slightly tweaked version of a standard superhero film. Now comes David Gordon Green, another indie darling whose career has taken an unprecedented route of late.

Whereas Aronofsky and O. Russell found acclaim with Academy-bothering fare, Gondry and Green have gone another way entirely, and have suffered something of a price for it. Your Highness is a puerile, unashamedly silly romp. Thanks to its genre it is guaranteed not to win any awards, and the vast majority of critics have been less than kind when reviewing the film. Many directors find critical success with small, independent projects and then move into the mainstream, or enter the Hollywood system (Duncan Jones being the most recent example), but few will have done so in the way Green has. Yet, despite a change in approach from George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), this move into comedy (not just with Pineapple Express [2008] and Your Highness, but also with Danny-McBride-staring television show Eastbound & Down) sees Green simply continuing to make the films that he wants to make.

This has inevitably come at some critical cost. Green’s first two films were fawned upon and discussed in film schools, whereas his latest efforts have caused much predictable head-scratching. One blogger’s recent post was entitled simply “Your Highness marks new low for David Gordon Green”. For some, this change in career trajectory seems essentially to represent Green betraying his audience, leaving them behind and embracing easy crowd-pleasers.

Yet, no less than his early efforts, Green’s last two films see him stretching himself, requiring him to try different subjects and tones, and thus to expand his skills as a director - indeed, both are very ambitious in their own way, constituting rather bizarre collisions of modes. It is primarily critical bias against the mainstream that prevents us from grasping this fact. The director has been quoted as saying that he always intended to try different genres, and that he and college-friend McBride used frequently to think up absurd titles that they wanted to eventually make into films; they are now simply in a position to fulfil these ambitions. Given this, why should a director not want to make a movie like this? As a working experience, Your Highness will have been both highly testing (in technical and budgetary terms) and enjoyable (collaborating with McBride), providing Green with useful tools for tackling larger-scale filmmaking. While the end result may be patchy, it is hard to argue with the reasoning behind embarking on the project.

The question, then, is: does Green somehow owe his audience a certain kind of picture? Is there a sense of injustice in the fact he has made a film that a majority of his previous core audience might feel alienated by? There is a lingering impression that a lot of the negativity towards his latest stems from a feeling of betrayal on the part of previous followers of Green’s output. Take, for example, this blog entry, written before the film even came out, which begins with the line, “I’m a little concerned for Green...” and then rants about how this is an awful project for him to choose. Kneejerk reactions such as these (and there are many more) suggest that, with the move to films which will appeal to broader audiences, fans are angry that they have lost a personal relationship with Green and his work.

The series Eastbound and Down, of which Green has now directed six episodes, would be another cause for concern amongst this strand of his admirers: it is puerile, rude and very immature. It is also, however, extremely funny, and really rather lovable. And the press has, in fact, generally been kind to this minor cult hit. Perhaps it is because Green has only directed a few episodes that he has received little notice for it, with most of the plaudits going to McBride and Ben Best (its creators, and also writers of Your Highness ); it also escapes accusations of impoverished ambition for this reason. But these kinds of strange comedies seem to be the direction in which Green is heading: up next is The Sitter, another comedy, this time starring Jonah Hill.

I have no issue in principle with Green taking on these more mainstream comedies. He has made great, thoughtful drama in the past, and indeed there is no reason for him not to do so again in the future. But I also largely enjoy these new works, and value them for what they are: raucous, fun, and made by people who are obviously extremely passionate about what they are creating. One might hope that Green returns to the type of films that made his name; but, for now, embrace his directorial shift, and enjoy it for all its silly, silly worth.

This Alternate Take was published on May 09, 2011.

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