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Holmes & Watson Sets a New Low for the Worlds' Greatest Detectives

I’m the kind of guy who hears a movie is supposedly the worst of the year and decides ‘I’ll go see that’.
Sherlock Holmes is a figure so renowned and ubiquitous (not to mention public domain) that it’s a shock to no one that of the many variations on the character to have emerged over the years, from Young Sherlock Holmes to The Great Mouse Detective to Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, he would be the subject of parody or comedic re-imagining. My favourite of these is a 1988 British film called Without a Clue, which acts particularly as a subversion of the Holmes-Watson dynamic established in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films of the 1940s -wherein Watson(Ben Kingsley) is the deductive genius who maintains a low profile by giving credit on his cases to a foppish actor playing the Sherlock Holmes character (Michael Caine). It’s pretty funny and really exercised the potential of what Sherlock Holmes offered in comedy. Holmes & Watson is not that.
Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) is England’s most respected detective, assisted by a fawning Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly). After apparently letting Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) loose, a murder at Buckingham Palace prompts an investigation by the duo and a larger conspiracy unravels as Watson tries to gain more respect and friendship in the eyes of his partner.
Holmes & Watson is directed by Etan Cohen whom the people involved in the film no doubt hope you mistake for the Coen brother. And it’s the reuniting of Ferrell and Reilly from Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. But the missing ingredient is Adam McKay, and though this movie’s quality certainly doesn’t hinge on one person, it clearly suffered for the absence of someone who knew how to direct its actors. No one is performing at their best and everyone (except for Ferrell) is way above the material. It’s actually incredibly sad to see one of the greatest actors working today playing Moriarty in such a pathetic film, as well as seeing Michael Winterbottom’s reliable duo of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, both very funny comedians, half-heartedly inserted into it (though Brydon’s Lestrade is the closest this movie comes to actual humour). But these performances at least aren’t embarrassing, which can’t be said for Kelly Macdonald and Lauren Lapkus, both supremely talented yet made to perform extremely clumsy humourless jokes. You actually find yourself feeling quite sorry for them. And for Pam Ferris, forced to be the butt of horrible slapstick as Queen Victoria; and for Hugh Laurie, a genuine comic genius, just for appearing in it (now both halves of Fry & Laurie have played Mycroft Holmes). But most of all, for John C. Reilly, an actor who it bears repeating, has worked with Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson.
So much of this films’ humour is in Holmes abusing Watson, from locking him in a deep sea helmet with a swarm of bees to poisoning him for an experiment, it’s appallingly unfunny to the point of tastelessness. And the drive-thru napkin scrawlings that hardly passes for a script gives Watson a character arc and a romantic interest played by Rebecca Hall who, bless her, is trying. But it’s impossible to take seriously the idea of a genuine friendship between the two men. And in between the story Watson is doing stupid things like hitting on Queen Victoria (which is supposedly funny because she’s old and unattractive!), and drunkenly telegraphing his penis. That’s another of the movies’ running broad jokes: referencing current trends and culture in a period context which has been done exceedingly better in everything from Mel Brooks films to Murdoch Mysteries. There’s a selfie gag that’s already almost a decade old, and an incredibly unsubtle dig at the election of Trump in a comparison between British and American politics that points to the electoral college as the downfall of American democracy -which is a joke everyone’s been making for the last two years.
The humour is also glaringly outdated, and not just in the style of slapstick and occasional gross-out comedy having an early 2000s feel; but the movie makes numerous references to the “Holmes-vision” of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, which came out nine and seven years ago. At this point it’s equivalent to making a bullet time Matrix parody, it’s just not relevant anymore. And I love Alan Menken but he needs to get off this kick of subverting his established Disney persona. It was charming when he wrote that song for Sausage Party, but between the musical number here and in Ralph Breaks the Internet, it’s starting to get old-hand, and in both cases has jarringly intruded on movies that don’t need song sequences.
Reilly is in three other movies playing right now across North America: Ralph Breaks the Internet, The Sisters Brothers, and Stan & Ollie, all of which are far better, so he can recover. Ferrell though, who plays this movie with an excruciating voice and garnering not an ounce of sympathy for the most insufferably idiotic Holmes ever put on screen, may not. It may be that his style of comedy which served him well on Saturday Night Live and movies like Anchorman, is too broad to survive the changing form. This is his sixth bad movie in a row so it’s certainly time he evolved (or tried drama again; I quite liked him in Stranger Than Fiction).
As for Holmes & Watson itself, it is indeed one of the worst movies of the year. It doesn’t leave me feeling as empty as The Happytime Murders, but it is just as soulless. And for the sake of their careers, I hope everyone involved forgets about having been a part of it.

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