Synopsis – A humorous take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
My Take – Did we really need another Sherlock Holmes film? Well I guess Sony thought we did! While the most filmed character in cinema history has been killing it in a limited series format on BBC One with Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role along with Martin Freeman as the sidekick Dr. Watson since its release in 2010, and CBS‘s procedural in the form of Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and a gender switched Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, continues to retain its audience, big screen adaptions has been quite dormant since director Guy Ritchie‘s fantastically profitable 2009 and 2011 films released, with 2015’s Sir Ian McKellen led rare and more eased out version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s character being the only one left to talk anything about.
However, some executives at Sony came up with a brilliant idea to finance a retooled version of the famous duo in a more humorous fashion, with comic geniuses Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in lead roles, who for reason unknown haven’t shared the screen since Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues five years ago, and Step Brothers ten years ago. The following around both that film and Talladega Nights, was surely a major inspiration for their reunion here, but shockingly this Etan Cohen (Get Hard) directed film offers virtually nothing that made either of those films so memorable.
Sure comedic takes on Sir Doyle’s legendary sleuth and his cool-headed sidekick are nothing new. He’s been tweaked by Gene Wilder in ‘The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,’ and transformed in 1988’s ‘Without a Clue’, which positioned Ben Kingsley’s Watson as the true detective, while Michael Caine’s Sherlock as a clueless actor Watson hired so he can operate freely. And yes, there have been misfires, but I doubt anything comes close to this terrible film.
Reportedly setting a record for walk-outs at some American cinemas and passed on by Netflix, this films re-imagines the legendary characters not as period-drama James-Bond-types or socially impossible contemporary figures but instead as a pair of hopeless and showboating twits, who make every minute of the film painful to watch. Here, both Ferrell and Reilly are struggling with objectively awful English accents and spend their time on screen dragging out terrible jokes, as though trapped in the improv-exercise equivalent of eternal damnation. Though it’s mostly the audience that suffers.
Even the film’s attempts at gross-out humor—such as an extended bit in which Holmes keeps barfing into a bucket, or a sequence where he calculates the trajectory of his arcing urine in slow-mo, in Guy Ritchie style, are just plain dumb. If only this film had released in cinemas closer to me last year, I would have truly crowned it the worst film of 2018.
The story follows Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly), a PTSD-suffering war veteran, who upon being unintentionally saved by Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell), from suicide, decides to commit his life to the detective. As the two become fast friends, they also become celebrity crime-solvers who are often considered in high regard in the whole of England. Their bumbling ways even leads to the release of Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), as Holmes believes that the real Moriarty has left the country, and that a copycat is pulling the strings. When a body falls out of a cake belonging to Holmes’s surprise party at the Buckingham Palace, and threat is made to the life of the Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris), the country falls into chaos. While Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon) is fully aware what a nitwit Holmes truly is, the Queen remains unfazed and hands the duo the responsibility to crack the case and save England.
Sounds like a pretty fun setup for a powers-of-deduction caper, right? Get ready to be disappointed. The film is 90 minutes of torture, with a couple of uncharacteristically unfunny and painfully awkward lead performances from Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. It appears that after hiring Ferrell and Riley the makers decided not to worry about the writing. The whole plot is a bunch of silliness made only to provide a modicum of structure to the disjointed series of set pieces.
In one of a number of ways the story does not care about historical accuracy, the action ends up on board the docked Titanic for its climax. That boat didn’t set sail until 11 years after the death of the very queen they are trying to save. Albert Einstein also makes an appearance. You get the idea. Rather than try and create something original from played out ideas akin to 21 Jump Street or make a general parody the film rely on endless clichés, lifeless sight gags, and utterly embarrassing punch lines to jokes that fail to have any semblance of a set up.
This one is simply the best example of lazy film making I have ever seen. Also because this one is the tackiest kind of studio comedy, they must also learn to be better friends to each other, get in touch with their feelings, and navigate a couple of romantic subplots: Watson’s crush on Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall), a “lady doctor” from Boston; Holmes’ confused attraction to her feral assistant, Millie (Lauren Lapkus), who shares his passion for eating raw onions like fruits. A Sherlock Holmes comedy seems to work best when paired with a premise that subverts the tried and true formula attached to Doyle’s characters.
The first big mistake the film makes is to simply pitch Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in their roles, respectively, and call it a day while expecting the duo to serve instant comedy gold. Sure, they were a hit with Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, but those Adam McKay directed classics made sure to first deliver a narrative foundation with fully formed characters and well-established conflict before letting Ferrell and Reilly loose. In this film, director Etan Cohen is also credited with the screenplay, but this mishmash of low-rent skit look like it was cobbled together without any sense of the overall tone and vision for the project. This duo is fearless and immensely creative when it comes to improvisation, but when they’re obviously not given much to work with, even the most inspired line or gag falls flat against the whole.
Watching a roster of stellar performers strain for the most forgiving of laughs against material so lifeless borders on depressing after a while. The small handful of moments that do land usually emerge from sheer exertion, whether in Lauren Lapkus‘ committed absurdity as a feral woman or in the kind of bawdy Three Stooges banter that made Ferrell and Reilly such a beloved comedy duo to begin with. What’s worse is that most of the jokes simply fall flat because they are mere premises without context. Many of the other jokes involve things like Holmes vomiting repeatedly in the face of gore, and a housemaid (Kelly Macdonald) getting caught emerging from intimate encounters with a variety of historical figures (hence Einstein’s appearance).
There’s a bizarre running joke about Watson being uncontrollably sexually attracted to the elderly queen. Rather than parody England’s blind reverence for its matriarch or link it to the idea that any person in the 19th century making it to old age is a sign of vitality, the joke doesn’t seem to be based on anything other than director Cohen thinking it would be funny to see a middle aged man hit on an old lady.
There are attempts here and there to provide some satire about how backwards science and culture was in Sherlock’s time, but they end up as torturous repetitions of the same jokes: Isn’t it funny how Watson’s solution to every ailment is cocaine? How the two male protagonists can’t possibly fathom Rebecca Hall’s vastly underutilized supporting character being a doctor? Because it’s the 19th century and everyone was a misogynist. Get it? There’s one hilarious joke involving telepathy, but it’s nowhere near worth enough to make the trip to the theaters, and supposedly selfies existed in the Victorian period. Lowbrow humor can be good material for Ferrell and Reilly, but only if it’s written better than this.
Will Ferrell is an actor who has no middle. He either goes full on board like he did in Old School and Talladega Nights (to name some), or goes fulling spiraling downwards like Land of the Lost and The Campaign. But that shows he’s fearless. He will take a run at any concept or script. But this one might be his worst yet. As Holmes, Will Ferrell never quite nails the character. His Holmes mocks, but never succeeds in really skewering the ludicrousness of Conan Doyle’s creation. Cumberbatch and others have already deflated the worst of Holmes’ pomposity and lack of self-awareness, leaving Ferrell without much real estate to claim as his own. Carrying a scene by himself, Ferrell often flounders.
Far more successful, as is often the way in a Will Ferrell project, are the support acts, however here John C Reilly is forced to delivers some of the unfunniest lines and that too with a straight face. How they trapped Ralph Fiennes and Rob Brydon into doing this film is actually the film’s biggest mystery. Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus fare a little better in terms of screen time as Holmes and Watson’s respective love interests, though, ultimately, there’s not enough space in the film for anybody but the leading men.
There will be a little consolation with some amusing cameos, Steve Coogan suddenly appearing as a one-armed tattooist, Pam Ferris as Queen Victoria, Kelly Macdonald as not quite the image of Mrs. Hudson as we have come to know, Hugh Laurie as Mycroft (communicating wordlessly with Sherlock in the silence required by the Diogenes Club, and a final joke about Titanic with Billy Zane as himself. On the whole, ‘Holmes & Watson’ is a terribly and unsettlingly unfunny comedy film that wastes its immense talents.
Directed – Etan Cohen
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 90 minutes