I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Sherlock Holmes, but I’ve enjoyed a few adaptations of the character over the years. I won’t regurgitate these musings, but they can be found in my review of the Ian McKellen movie Mr. Holmes, a movie which is as untraditional in its approach to the world’s most famous literary detective as this latest version, a buddy comedy starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly – only better.
Holmes and Watson isn’t the first time the source material has been played for laughs – Without A Clue (1988), and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother (1975) – so it’s not like Etan Cohen is forging a new cinematic path here, but it’s the first time (that I can recall) that Holmes is given the irreverent, absurdist approach, as is typical of most of Ferrell’s work. The trouble is that the movie has come too late in Ferrell’s career.
I’ve been a fan of Ferrell since his days on Saturday Night Live – I really enjoyed the goofiness he brought to his characters, and I feel it translated well when he eventually made the step up to film. Elf is rightfully considered a classic, and the surreality of the Anchorman movies worked for me too. I even liked his previous two team-ups with Reilly, Step Brothers, and Talladega Nights. Those days are long gone for Ferrell, though. His last few movies, including Get Hard, and The House, have been box office duds – I can’t comment on them since I haven’t seen them, but the numbers speak for themselves. Ferrell is one guy who badly needs a hit, and Holmes and Watson isn’t it. In fact, it’s such a spectacular misfire that it’s hard to see how he can recover from this.
After an origin story featuring a young Holmes getting revenge on his bullying peers at a boarding school, the story fast-forwards to the present day (of the story), where Holmes is preparing to be the star witness in the trial of Professor Moriarty, his arch-nemesis, played by Ralph Fiennes in a completely superfluous role. The joke in this sequence is that Holmes wants to try out different looks for his court appearance, but the clock is ticking down: if Holmes fails to appear, the judge will have to dismiss the case and Moriarty will go free. It’s a thin way to open the movie, and as it turns out, this scene is typical of others spread throughout: it’s just not that funny and lasts way too long. It establishes that Ferrell’s Holmes is contradictorily both a genius and a pompous buffoon in the mold of Ron Burgundy, and I was prepared to like it, but for some bizarre reason writer/director Cohen introduces the same visual conceit found in the RDJ movies from years ago, where Holmes imagines how a sequence of events should play out, before taking that path to victory. It plays like a sad version of those spoof movies that appear every once in a while that send up fairly recent movies. But those movies are generally released within two years of the movies they’re spoofing. There hasn’t been a Robrty Downey Jr Holmes movie for seven years, and that’s a long time. The result is that the parody seems really dated, and kind of lazy too: it’s a one-and-done joke. Poke fun at something, then move on to the next one. I wasn’t really sure what the point of extending the gag throughout the movie was, and it’s not the only one; there are a few times when current things like selfies and drunk texts are given the Victorian-era treatment. Once might be funny, but after you get the joke the others are been-there-done-that. It all feels like Cohen had no real idea how to deal with this property in this genre and just didn’t have the talent to overcome it. There are plenty of other things that could have been sent up in this movie that might have worked better – at the very least they would have added some variety to the plot. There’s a half-hearted stab at Donald Trump, so hopelessly unfunny that it seemed shoehorned in as out-of-context editorial comments – talk about plucking the low hanging fruit!
The story is basic and uninvolving too – after the overextended and needlessly convoluted opening court scene, it takes quite a bit for the actual story to start, so both the pacing and structure of the movie are painful to sit through. In a nutshell, Holmes and Watson must prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria, with Moriarty having brazenly declared his intent to the public. Sure, this storyline could have translated capably regardless of the genre, but here it’s spread way too thin and contains some glaringly bad plot choices by Cohen. In addition, the movie adds two supporting characters, both women, to serve as inevitable romantic interests for the leads – and these characters are so inconsequential to the story itself that it’s just more evidence that this entire movie should have been deleted while it was still at the plotting stage. One of the women is an American doctor played by Rebecca Hall, and the other, played by Lauren Lapkus, is (ostensibly) a mentally deficient woman raised by feral cats. Very little of the scenes involving these two amount to anything that affects the plot, and their interactions with Ferrell and Reilly are just not funny and the gags, again, are stretched out well beyond their shelf life – or strangely truncated, as in a post-mortem examination scene set to the song Unchained Melody, in a take-off of the pottery scene in Ghost, a movie that’s almost 30 years old. While I smiled or chuckled a few times during this movie, it never happened because the movie was naturally funny in terms of story or character, just moments that were dumb enough, and they happened very early on. The rest of the time I sat there realizing I was watching a complete disaster. The Queen Victoria “death” scene is something that reminded me of American sitcoms of the 70s, not something I’d expect to see in a modern movie meant for modern audiences. It’s way too broad and the sight gags are from a bygone era – even so, that scene might still have worked in more capable hands than Cohen, whose approach to the whole movie seems as utterly clueless as Ferrell’s version of Holmes. There’s maybe half an hour of story in this entire movie, but it’s like pizza dough rolled too thin, then propped up on toothpicks. I can’t elaborate on that, by the way, it just sounded right.
When we left the cinema, most of the comments I overheard were similar to mine, and the box office stats back that up too. The movie was never screened for critics beforehand, and the marketing efforts were very low key – considering this was a movie opening at Christmas, it spoke volumes as to how the studio guessed it was going to perform. So far it’s been an unqualified critical and financial dud, deservedly so. I read a headline recently that claimed Netflix had opted not to bid for it and release it as “A Netflix Film”, and that was absolutely the right thing to do. I said earlier in the review that Will Ferrell was in bad need of a hit, but I’ll go one further and say that Holmes and Watson will probably see an Anchorman 3 greenlit before the slide toward a three-season network TV sitcom run, and if he doesn’t change agents now, it’ll likely be called “Will!”