Brow Beat

Whatever Happened to David Gordon Green?

Danny McBride and David Gordon Green at the premiere of ‘Your Highness’ last April.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Dear Danny McBride:

I have a request. Or maybe just a message to pass along. It depends. In any case, it concerns your friend, David Gordon Green.

I know you guys went to film school together, and you seem pretty close. You certainly work together a lot: He directed you in the “action comedy” Pineapple Express and the “medieval stoner comedy” Your Highness, as well as in several episodes of your very funny HBO series about a former major league ballplayer, Eastbound & Down. He served as a consulting producer on other episodes. And now you’re both working on an animated show for MTV that he created, which debuts tonight. (More on that in a minute.)

What’s probably less well known is that your first credits came on small indie projects Green directed. You were a second unit director on George Washington, his lyrical feature film debut from 2000 about kids in a small, hard-up town. I love that movie. And I liked All the Real Girls, his follow-up, a lot, too. You were good in it as Bust-Ass, a sort of no-good friend to the main character, played by Paul Schneider, who’s beginning to realize that sleeping with every girl in his small, Southern hometown isn’t going to make him happy after all. Zooey Deschanel has never been more charming, and Patricia Clarkson was great as always.

Both those movies showed the influence of Terrence Malick, with their unconventional use of voiceover and their deliberate pacing. But they weren’t mere imitations: They’re more domestic and less philosophical than Malick’s films, as though Green married Malick’s techniques to the intimacy of Charles Burnett’s wonderful Killer of Sheep from 1977 (to which George Washington is often compared).

Malick seemed to like those movies, too: He served as an executive producer on Green’s third feature, Undertow. I didn’t enjoy that one as much—and I confess I skipped the fourth, Snow Angels, which Green adapted from a Stewart O’Nan novel. So maybe I’m part of the problem here.

What is the problem? After getting mostly great reviews and underwhelming box office returns for those movies, Green seems to have abandoned whatever Malick and Burnett-sized ambitions he ever had. When he signed on to Pineapple Express, many fans of his earlier work thought, “Hey, this will be interesting: A promising young director with an experimental side is going to try his hand at a mainstream comedy.” Then came Your Highness. “Oh,” we thought, “he’s doing another comedy. Well, it’s an unusual one, at least, what with the marijuana in the Middle Ages and all.”

And now there’s Good Vibes, a cartoon about a short, overweight high-school kid from New Jersey who has to adjust to surf-crazed southern California. Fox picked it up a few years ago, but never put it on the air; it’s premiering on MTV tonight, paired with the revived Beavis and Butthead. You play the morbidly obese teacher Ms. Teets. The whole voice cast is impressive: Adam Brody, Josh Gad, Olivia Thirlby, Dax Shepard.

And the show is terrible. Not only is it unfunny and derivative, but it’s remarkably chauvinistic: The women on the show are either impossibly proportioned hourglass-shaped creatures who exist to be ogled by the show’s male characters, or (like your Ms. Teets) hideous subhumans who exist to be mocked.

When Green first veered into more commercial territory with Pineapple Express, a lot of us thought he might follow the Steven Soderbergh/Gus Van Sant/Richard Linklater playbook, and alternate between commercial projects and more indie fare. That’s a well-worn and often fruitful path. But we’re coming up on five years since Snow Angels showed at Sundance, without anything terribly interesting on the horizon. Black Jack, a pilot for Comedy Central, sounds like Eastbound & Down meets Alias; it could be good, but I’m not going to hold my breath. And The Sitter, the upcoming Jonah Hill comedy, is pretty clearly Adventures in R-Rated Babysitting.

Generally speaking, people shouldn’t tell artists what to do. Artists need to ignore their fans and follow their muses—otherwise, how would they surprise us? And I realize that, when it comes to movies, you never know which projects will get funding. (Imagine if A Confederacy of Dunces had gone forward? Then this is is a whole different conversation, most likely.) Finally, I don’t mean to look down my nose at these other projects (apart from Good Vibes; seriously, what were you guys thinking?). But Green has the talent to leave a real mark on American movies, and it looks like he’s letting the opportunity slip.

So maybe give him back to us? Or just pass this message along. It would be much appreciated.