Zooey Deschanel

Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson play roommates in the Fox comedy “New Girl,” in which she plays a dorky and awkward girl surrounded by three bros. (Photo courtesy of Fox Broadcasting)

Fox’s new hit comedy “New Girl” is weird. The show, centered on a woman (Zooey Deschanel) who moves in with a trio of single guys she found on Craigslist and created by Liz Meriwether (“No Strings Attached”), has a shaggy comedy sensibility to it. It’s quirky and offbeat and loves itself wholeheartedly for it. It’s like an indie film, but one that’s middling and difficult to like.

The new girl in question is Jess (Deschanel), who comes home early one day to find her boyfriend with another woman. Hurt, she leaves him and takes up with a group of guys who have the camaraderie of a buddy comedy: the sensitive slacker Nick (Jake Johnson), the superficial pretty boy Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and wiseguy Winston (Lamorne Morris) come together for great scenes of male friendship. They’re full of ribbing jokes and have an easiness to them that feels genuine.

Together they make a three-person straight man for the oddball Jess, who sings-narrates through scenes, breaks into uncoordinated dances and speaks in stilted, infantilized speech. Their interactions are growing more winsome with each episode, even if Jess’ antics are becoming more intolerable; one episode was about her overcoming her inability to say “penis.”

It all comes down to its divisive star, Zooey Deschanel, whose image as a manic, pixie-dream girl is taken for full force: Jess is like the dorky, yet impossibly hip little sister of a Disney princess. Whether you find her ratcheted sense of twee endearing or insufferable, it does not make up for Jess’ inhuman, cartoonish characterization. Jess behaves so bizarrely sometimes, she seems unreal.

Deschanel herself is a puzzle here, because it’s difficult to parse just what she’s aiming for with her performance: Is she cleverly playing up a fictionalized, audience-projection version of herself, or is she just using her spacey demeanor and bright, expressive eyes to phone it in? You could just as easily argue that it’s this inexactness in her performance that makes it a failure.

At the same time, “New Girl” flirts with the edges of some fascinating pop-psychology. The joke would normally be that Jess’ moving in with total strangers is risky because they might turn out to be crazy; here, it’s the opposite, and she’s made to be the loony one. It would be something clever of “New Girl” to sketch a comedy about how women entering male-dominated spaces are conveyed as unknowable freaks, but the show lacks any sort of strong focus that those insights seem more like coincidence. It also makes Jess’ strangeness all the more alienating.

“New Girl” may not be a creative success, but its ratings upswing could ironically pave the way for future shows with its indie auteur styling and a better grip on themselves to see the light of day. The show is early into its run and could find its way. Right now, it’s too “adorkable” for its own good.


Printed on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 as: Zooey Deschanel plays spacey 'New Girl' on Fox

David Gordon Green’s recent reinvention of his career has been nothing short of fascinating to watch. After creating a name for himself making glacially paced, poetically written indies such as “Snow Angels” and “All the Real Girls,” Green did a complete 180 and began making uproarious stoner comedies such as 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and now the absolutely ridiculous and hysterical “Your Highness.”

Things start off with Thadeous (Danny McBride) about to be executed by a kingdom of midgets and the film only gets sillier from there when he is forced to accompany his brother Fabious (James Franco) on a quest to save Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), Fabious’ fiancee who has been captured by the nefarious Leezar (Justin Theroux). Unbeknownst to the brothers, Leezar plans to use Belladonna to fulfill an especially invasive prophecy. As they quest to rescue her, they encounter a perverted wizard, a randy Minotaur and the deadly Isabel (Natalie Portman).

Obviously, a film like this lives and dies on the quality of its jokes. On this front, “Your Highness” has more hits than misses, continuing the “Pineapple Express” method of blending stoner humor, creative cursing and over-the-top violence for laughs. This is a film that may sound like it was written by a 13-year-old, but in the best way possible. It’s raunchy, unapologetic and seems endlessly entertained with itself. Even when the occasional joke flops, there are several far funnier quips quickly following it.

Most of this is thanks to the comedic persona of McBride. After making his film debut in Green’s “All the Real Girls,” McBride has been slowly honing the character he’s best known for: the cocky failure whose ego is matched only by his blissful lack of self-awareness. Coming off of another hilarious season of “Eastbound & Down,” McBride slaps on a preposterous British accent and lends every scene his trademark comedic stylings. If audiences have grown tired of McBride’s schtick, “Your Highness” may be a bit of a chore, but fans will find plenty to laugh at here.

The rest of the cast refuses to let McBride dominate the spotlight, however. Franco’s Fabious is energetic and naive, employing Franco’s goofy smile and natural comedic timing to great effect. Theroux’s detestable wizard almost steals the show, but is segregated from the rest of the cast for most of the film, asked instead to play off of Deschanel’s straight man. When Deschanel is asked to interact with the rest of the cast, she displays an uncharacteristic comedic flair, but mostly flounders in the film’s later scenes, where she’s only asked to look scared and make out with Franco. Portman, on the other hand, is great, taking the filthy, playful persona she brought to “No Strings Attached,” cranking it up, and running with the film’s often ridiculous material. It helps that Portman is given a few action scenes where she proves to be surprisingly badass.

As for director Green, he adapts well to the medieval genre — miles away from the Midwestern, poetic locations where he began making films. Green also displays an adept eye for action sequences, and manages to compose several of the epic landscape shots that defined films such as “Lord of the Rings.”

“Your Highness” is a film that almost defies the rules of logic. A big-budget stoner comedy starring a recent Oscar winner and another nominee that manages to make McBride something of an action hero. By all laws of common sense, this shouldn’t exist. And yet, here it is, in all its shamelessly dirty, hilarious glory, and this weekend, moviegoers will be all the better for it.