Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are at this point a beloved comedy duo. Their two main collaborations STEP BROTHERS and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY are revered by many people as modern comedy classics. Both films are heavily quoted and referenced and have become part of the pop culture landscape more than any other film comedies of recent memory.
So, when it was announced that the duo would be reuniting again for a comedic take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos expectations were high amongst comedy fans. The one thing that caused the most concern was the absence of the man behind the camera for those two earlier works, writer/director Adam McKay. In his place was Etan Cohen. Cohen had previously collaborated with Ferrell on 2015's GET HARD which is a problematic film that is considered one of Ferrell's weakest efforts. That concern grew beyond just Cohen's involvement when word spread of disastrous test screenings and constantly shifting release dates.
Still, fans (and I count myself among them) hoped that the chemistry of the two leads and their shared comedic sensibilities would be enough to push HOLMES & WATSON into being at the very least a fun, breezy watch. Sadly, they could not achieve this feat. HOLMES & WATSON is bad in nearly every way possible. It is definitely the worst mainstream comedy of the year and is high in the running for "Worst theatrical release of 2018".
HOLMES & WATSON concerns the legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes, played by Ferrell, and his right-hand man Dr. John Watson, played by Reilly, working to solve a murder mystery that appears to have been perpetrated by Holmes' arch-nemesis Moriarty, played by the criminally underused Ralph Fiennes (IN BRUGES). Holmes however is certain that Moriarty has escaped to America and the crimes are being done by a copycat. When the mysterious killer threatens to murder the Queen of England in four days time, Holmes and Watson enter a race against time to identify the killer and prevent the attempt on the Queen's life.
That story idea is a solid basis for a Sherlock Holmes tale so where does the film begin to fall apart? Well, outside of bland direction and nearly episodic plot progression that makes the film feel rambling and longer than its 90 minute run time, a lot of the blame falls directly on Ferrell, who's take on Holmes is deeply unlikable. He portrays the famous detective as foppish, egotistical, and dim. Yes, he plays literature's greatest detective as a bit of a moron, more interested in being dressed nice, doing drugs (the film thinks the idea of Victorian-era drug use is hysterical but never does much with it except for a few throwaway jokes), and the idea of being famous. He's basically the typical Ferrell character of the ego-driven fool... except when the plot requires him to rattle off complex answers to the film's mysteries. The answers he gives never feel organic to the character and his version of Holmes lacks all of the big-hearted earnestness of his most popular roles. Ferrell epitomizes every complaint that has ever been leveled against his comedic style and acting ability in this film. This is a career-worst performance.
The film's only bright spot is John C. Reilly as Watson. Reilly's take on the character is also like roles he's played in the past, a well-meaning doofus who just wants to earn his friend's respect and do the right thing. There is a lot of Reilly's "Cal Naughton Jr." (TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY) in his portrayal of Dr. Watson and what scant few laughs the film provides are all due to Reilly's work as Holmes' trigger-happy best friend. Sadly, though it'd just not enough to save such an aggressively unfunny film.
HOLMES & WATSON is full of so many strange choices it would be difficult to list them all here. The film wastes not only the talents of Ralph Fiennes, but also Kelly Macdonald (BOARDWALK EMPIRE), Hugh Laurie (HOUSE M.D), and Steve Coogan (ALAN PARTRIDGE) they are all barely in the film, even the ones who greatly influence the plot fail to leave an impression with their minimal amount of screen time. The most glaring problem with the film is the decision to include numerous, jarring historical anachronisms. For example, when they meet the Queen, the duo pulls out a Victorian-era camera with a selfie stick attached and proceed to make "duck lip" faces when taking a picture with her. It has all the comedic depth of the parody films of Friedberg and Seltzer (MEET THE SPARTANS).
Later in the film Watson, while performing an autopsy with an attractive woman doctor played by Rebecca Hall (IRON MAN 3), turns on a phonograph and the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" starts to play and the characters re-create the pottery scene from the Patrick Swayze film GHOST using the dead body instead of clay. It's such a demented and tone-deaf choice for a PG-13 comedy that I sat there stunned watching it in that sold out theater on Christmas Day, not quite believing what was unfolding in front of me.
At this point, I began to take notice of how little the crowd around me was laughing at what happened on screen. As the film went on and more equally strange and tone-deaf comedy sequences occurred (the climax of the film takes place on the Titanic, for example, for reasons I’m still trying to understand), they were met with growing silence from the audience who seemed so eager to laugh as the film was beginning. By the time it was ending each joke was met with isolated laughter or restless indifference. I have never seen a more eager audience have such a widespread negative reaction to a film.
HOLMES & WATSON will go down as a black mark on the career of everyone involved with its production and rightfully so. It's full of lazy, poorly written comedy, weak or outright bafflingly bad performances, and truly dull plotting. It's one to avoid without question
HOLMES & WATSON is playing currently in theaters nationwide.
- Matthew Essary
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