Wherein I Think Too Hard About Your Highness

Your Highness is dazzling in its array of reviews: they swing from ultimate disgust ( Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir calls it possibly the worst movie ever made) to a gleeful delight, NPR’s David Edelstein refers to it as a pinnacle of low comedy.  I’m not sure it is either of these, but it is a fine example of a wispy trend developing in comedy: the joke of the American male.

I offer it as an offshoot of Apatow’s bromances, burgeoning with the Apatow produced Pineapple Express, and fully embraced by Danny McBride and his usual crew of makers (David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Ben Best), we see it living large in most of McBride’s blustery roles.  The closest kin these movies have might be the genre takedowns of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead), or the early work of Kevin Smith, which does the same kind of nostalgia spin and masculinity slam that these movies do.  What I mean by this is that instead of looking at how hard it is to grow up and be a good dude, especially if unequipped in modern times (the Apatow catalogue), this new branch celebrates adolescent nostalgia while reveling in the failed response of masculine ego. Whereas the joke is never on Paul Rudd, the joke is always on Danny McBride (and even Seth Rogen when he shows up in Hill’s Observe and Report).

We see this super clearly in Eastbound and Down, the same happens with McBride’s lead in Foot Fist Way, and most of his roles where he portrays a signature mix of ignorance and enthusiasm (Fireworks dude in Tropic Thunder, Bustass in All the Real Girls, Drug dealer fellow in Pineapple Express).  He is very good at bombast, skewing redneck, and quickly showing the fear and soft bits of an insecure soul.  These guys are fascinated by this trope, and have repeated it in most of their work.  They love portraying the unattractive man who is not winning, who is steeped in laziness and failure, and who tells himself a self-narrative of the gods. They love the comedy of such a known tragedy. And they get away with a lot because of it. The racism, misogyny, and general obscenity is always framed so that they are calling out the same errors that they are gleefully getting to say.  Apatow’s crudeness is an attempt at realism. This new branch uses obscenity as part of the bluster it is unpinning.  At one point in Your Highness, a squire says to Prince Thaddeous (McBride) something like “I know you rely on your vulgarity as a defense for your insecurity.” This is either right before or after both Thaddeous and his page have mimed ejaculating onto the squire’s head.

This look at the narcissist American male (I say American because the accessories are always American, with the joke extending to America, its blind faith in itself, and how comfortable it is letting itself get away with everything), in these movies is also usually partnered with a deep love for markers of boyhood joy, and the genres that sparked this love way back when.  Foot Fist Way is basically a filthy Karate Kid remake filled with props from what meant good living in the eighties according to video games and action movies (red corvettes, big haired blondes, gold necklaces). It is filled with the boy version of what the good life of the future was. If we did the girl version of this from that same time, we would have a movie littered with Kit n’ Kaboodles, fuschia satin camisoles, Virginia Slims, and stretch limos.  The same nostalgia, and it’s failure in an adult life, pops up in Observe and Report, especially with Seth Rogen’s date sweater.  He is wearing on his date what he also probably wore to 7th grade graduation. In 7th grade, it was the flyest.

The same happens in Pineapple Express (and ode to Cheech and Chong movies), and Your Highness (deep homage to Krull and all of its kin).  These are the films that made a generation, and while I do think girls have a different set of cultural texts (Teen Witch, Labyrinth, She’s Out of Control, Crybaby, Troop Beverly Hills, Maid to Order, etc.), both sexes share the imprint of what these movies were, and what they told us the future would be.

Your Highness is a deeply affectionate critique of a generation of fantasy movies. It commends the good stuff (the puzzles, the mysticism, the camp), and calls out the weak and ridiculous (the pat formulas, bad special effects, etc.). It especially notes the sexual undertones that were always present (do you remember Jennifer Connelly eating that peach in the Labyrinth?) by grotesquely calling them out.  In Your Highness, all the characters are questing to keep “The Fuckening” from taking place, where a virgin wizard will rape and impregnate a virgin princess. The fuckening will logically produce a dragon. Which is genius, because Natalie Portman gets to say with a straight face “it is my quest to keep people from fucking dragons into the world.”  Your Highness also calls out the way women are usually reduced to crones, princesses or women in leather thongs in all these movies (Krull has an amazing spider crone, and Red Sonja is the icon of leather sex warrior). At one point in the rescue of the princess, Thaddeous tells the baddie wizard “She’s not your virgin, she’s my brother’s virgin,” and earlier asks his brother if he would still marry the princess if the wizard had indeed deflowered her, or even buttfucked her.  Just as the joke is often on the grotesque male and his inadequacies of self-narrative, the joke here is also on the genre itself.

And the smartest part of it all is that we get to see it back through the adolescent lens, and witness the juxtaposition of those hopes and weird feelings against a real adult backdrop (or, realer adult backdrop).  It is like we get to watch Krull and get hear what McBride and Green and Hill were thinking when they were 13 watching it.  They are going back to their youthful expectations of adulthood, manhood, and showing how those scripts, or at least their earlier innocent readings of them, maneuver in the adult problems of failure, lack, and finding oneself to be an unmythic character in an unmythic world. It’s a look at the busted dreams of our kidselves, with a good dose of follow-up on the adults that we have become. For the fellows here, it is one long dick joke, and that makes sense. It’s a boomerang of a dick-joke, one started 20 years ago, initially about expectation and wonder, and now about insecurity and failure.

This batch of movies takes on the headiness of  those movies we watched a thousand times at sleepovers, where we began deciding what the world really is.  Your Highness is one more of the grown boy version, with tons of dicks and dragons, looking at how those old scripts manage to both fail and delight.

I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but it is an interesting one,

So, there’s that,



Our Men: The Powers/CK Continuum

We write a lot here about men in movies, and the imbalance of their female counterparts. The Sloppy Joe is really just the Normal Joe. Meanwhile, the Sloppy Jane is a sore sight for sore eyes that aren’t used to looking into the sun. (Also, I have to make a loud, brusque, and phlegmy cough of ahem! to David Denby’s lukewarm observation in a review of Hall Pass that “women, however, may be insulted in other ways: onscreen, they are rarely the ones who get to act up. They’re usually solid and sane–good, loyal, colorless, hardworking girlfriends and wives.”…May be, Denby? May be?).

But, let’s look at the Sloppy Joes out there that are certainly part of the posse (both the Hollywood gender vacuum, and the posse of me, you and anybody else that would come to our party), and not part of the problem. I want to assert here that Louis CK, in his role as Louis CK on the show Louie, and the bombastic Mr. Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down offer a spectrum of modern masculinity, its shapes, its foibles, its merits and demerits.  I think they are the Sloppy Joe of our dreams, or at least, the men that Apatow’s boys are supposed to be.

The fucked up protagonist, fully launched into our collective sub-conscious with David Brent in 2001, has become such a staple and mandate that television execs are suggesting it is as passe’ and lucrative as vampires (at least this is what I overheard at my local coffeeshop where we all talk loudly about doing important things).  Depressed may well be out, because CK has cornered that market so well on his FX show.  As long as he keeps producing, I’m okay if he is the only supplier of sad man out there for awhile. This is because what he does is startling. I would offer that CK is the male Munro…just as Alice Munro catalogs how women’s lives are not made of miracles, CK would very much like to take all the gloss off, and show that plain living is made of shit and life. Under the initial layer of middle age and divorce chronicles, the show takes on what it is to be a man and the wobbles of masculinity (and not in the “should I be a dad or not” angst).  He isn’t portraying rites of growth or understanding. He shows the ambiguous part of having balls. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, except in key Sloppy Jane roles (again, the glorious Munro, Poppy in Happy Go Lucky, Sylvia Plath…). Our regularly scheduled schlumps (Life According to Jim, any Seth Rogen role, well, all any man starring in a movie where he is not wearing a beautifully tailored suit), don’t do this kind of work.  They exist in their messes (messes that any actress would be lucky to get a chance at), but their saccharine revelations are more of a kind of fable porn, where all struggle reveals sweet lessons and profoundity: angsty confused men grow up to be good men, and thus the hard part is over. CK is already grown up. He sits in his mess, and carries on.

And then we have Kenny Powers, who can mostly be summed up as a major dick.  He is a worst fear of American masculinity (the majorest dick): arrogant, racist, misogynist, uncouth, drunk, raging, scared, self-serving, and blind to all others but himself. He belches, he slaps asses, he brags about women ovulating all over his jetski handlebars. He betrays those closest to him constantly. And, he’s a sports hero. For all the fun of his rants and horrible behavior (the writers are smart here to win from the foulness of his character, and calling dibs on knowing he is an asshole), Powers is working in the same waters as CK: how to be a dude, and how restraining and nebulous expected gender roles can be.

Powers is so sunk by his own macho self-narrative that he constantly causes himself pain. As much as he swaggers in the first season, you just as often see a scared man who doesn’t know how to admit failure, or a scared man who cannot live up to his own mouth.  He only knows how to relate to the world through the demonstrations of alpha status: wealth, ladies, and domination. But the real world he returns to after he burns out in baseball make a mockery of these tools. They are small attempts, or gilded impostors (a leased truck, absolute rule over 7th graders, a disregard for insurance law). He always looks like a chump. The show delights in the myth of Kenny, the fun of his badassery, and it is delightful. But ultimately, creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill are taking on the failures of a rigid and mythic masculinity.

I also give the writers a high commendation for their allegiance to the jet-ski, which becomes a running metaphor for the grandiosity of Powers’ self-narrative. And the scope is large.  Jeffrey Sconce, in a post tiled “Burdened White Men”, also comparing CK and Powers,  noted that

If Eastbound and Downwere simply about beating up on Kenny Powers, who remains oddly sympathetic despite burning through life as a testosterone tornado that emotionally destroys everyone in his path, the series would get old quick.  Luckily, the show is smart enough to link the fate of the mulleted, super-awesome, and sociopathic Kenny to a parallel crisis in America’s collapsing confidence and identity.

Kenny Powers does seem to be a worst nightmare of America, as well as of a son, neighbor, or loverman. And yet, I still really like him, and want him to win. Like David Brent, I really don’t want to see him humiliated. His fucked up heart isn’t exactly his fault…he just needs more self-esteem (wait, I thought that was girl’s problem?).

Sconce also commends the challenging work these shows are doing, even if they are another set of odes to the white man’s lament of living well in the western world. As far as Sloppy Joes go, these two just might take your breath away.  Both rip open expectations of masculine identity and poke around at what’s underneath: the lovely and the icky bits that are suffocating together.

And, because I live off of Netflix, I am late to both of these parties. Louie is available on Netflix Instant, while season one of Eastbound & Down is on DVD. Both shows will have a new season this fall.