A few years ago, a friend and I got in a bit of an argument: was David Gordon Green's third feature, Undertow, up to the standards set by his first two films? Neither of us being a moron, we both agreed that George Washington was a consummate achievement, the kind of once-in-a-generation first feature, but while I felt that Undertow was virtually the equal of All the Real Girls, he maintained that it was, rather, a demonstration that Green was beginning to drift, to lose his touch.

Simpler times.

Undertow looks like The Thin Red fucking Line when compared to Green's sixth and newest film, Your Highness, a pot comedy set in a Dark Ages British fantasyland, written by and starring Green's school buddy Danny McBride, who has been a predominately delightful scene-stealer in a lot of projects, but proves to be completely unendurable when he's made our protagonist. But a monumentally uncharismatic lead is not the chief problem with Your Highness; for thankfully, the film does not require us to like the hero, and seems rather to guide us to the opposite. And really, it's not even the mere fact of setting a pot comedy in a fantasy setting that wrecks the film, though certainly it does itself no favors by simply positing that McBride's character is a stoner, and that of course the use of psychoactive herbs was common enough in medieval Europe to not warrant comment, because how else could we make a medieval pot comedy?

It's not even the problem that Green is wasting his talents on a lowbrow stoner film; Pineapple Express could have been directed by anybody, and only been a smidgen weaker, and some of us might be aggrieved that it appears to have marked the new direction of Green's career (and it certainly seems from all the available evidence that the director is quite happy to be where he is, and the days of geographically precise visual tone poems in the "Malick knock-off" mode are behind him), but the worst you can say about that film is that it's a fine action comedy.

No, the grand central flaw of Your Highness is that evergreen sin of the limp comedy: the jokes just aren't that funny. McBride & co-writer Ben Best would apparently have it that the very pinnacle of humor is to have people say "fuck" in heightened almost-English accents, buried in amongst the high-falutin' sword and sorcery language. Just about every single scene is buttoned by a character, acting as though he or (infrequently) she just stepped out of The Beastmaster, talking in some deliberately silly tones about swords and honor and magic, and then, without skipping a beat, muttering "fucker". I'll confess myself uncertain if this even meets the baseline definition of a gag; I guess the idea is that comedy arises from unexpected juxtaposition, but Your Highness is pitched at the level of 14-year-olds who think it's awesome just to say dirty words: haha, you said 'fuck'. And mixing that in with a Dungeons & Dragons session. Do 14-year-olds still play Dungeons & Dragons? For that matter, are 14-year-olds still innocent enough that saying "fuck" is transgressive? It doesn't really make a difference, Your Highness still sucks, though comedy being subjective and all, the man behind me who repeated, verbatim, every single vulgar phrase spoken in the movie and then laughed seemed to be enjoying himself, probably because he, as part of the film's target audience, was under the influence of cannabinoids. I'll even confess that "The Fuckening" got a chuckle out of me, but that's mostly because I'm an easy lay for Highlander II jokes.

Anyhow: Your Highness finds Prince Thadeous (McBride), the stoner younger son of the King of Morn, or Someplace That Sounds Like Morn (Charles Dance), wracked with jealousy of his handsome, brave, accomplished brother, Prince Fabious (James Franco), whose name I believe to be a late substitution when Prince Geypanick didn't test well. Fabious has just returned from a quest, rescuing the beautiful Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) from the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux); but the wizard is cunning and steals her right back, leading the two princes on a new quest to rescue her again, with Thadeous very reluctantly overcoming his slacker impulses less to save the day and more to impress the hot barbarian chick Isabel (Best Actress Oscar winner Natalie Portman).

It's a fine plot, I suppose. It's anecdote-driven, by and large, like most quest narratives are; most quest narratives are not so doubly indebted to jokes involving the word "fuck" and man-on-man sex, but that's as may be. The dominant mode of the thing, following all of Green's films, is one of being laid-back and relaxed; it's easy to assume that most of the shoot was viewed as an excuse mostly for hanging out and being completely silly and stupid, and not without reason. There's a certain perverse appeal to seeing an effects-driven movie in which every character and every crewmember comes to the conclusion, at one point or another, of "ah, just fuck it", though it's even more appealing when that process ends up in something even marginally entertaining for the viewer.

Shit, even Pineapple Express understood that a healthy percentage of the audience for a stoner comedy will not in fact be stoned; Your Highness folds up and dies when faced with a viewer who isn't going to laugh at penises for the sheer unmitigated fact of penises. And it's even worse as an adventure than a comedy; frankly: Green's skills as a director are absolutely not right for staging battle scenes, or working with large-scale CGI effects. When the film is content to traipse through the fantastic landscapes of its invented world, it comes close to working on any kind of level, and I think it's probably because these are the moments closest to the "let's settle in and watch an environment" mood of Green's actually good films. Also because of cinematographer Tim Orr, who deserves to be canonised after this project, for remembering, alone of the whole production team, the days of George Washington, and who manages to smuggle in some gorgeous landscape shots here and there, some interesting lighting, and in the opening scene, 100 years before the main story, a gorgeously desaturated, grainy aesthetic that at least has the merit of being unexpected.

Look, I'm perfectly happy for McBride and Green, that they got to make an '80s throwback and hang out with fun people like Franco and Deschanel (the only actor even trying - she makes the character a sarcastic referendum on her stock, "I'm such a delightful free spirit!" shtick), and I imagine that Best Actress Oscar winner Portman probably knows how to cut loose. I really wish that they'd found some way at all to let the rest of us in on the fun, because even as an amiably stupid laid-back comedy, Your Highness is unforgivably pointless.