Hooray, it’s the annual return of the “Mark Strong, But” game! Holmes & Watson is a comedy that reunites Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly on the big screen for the first time since Step Brothers, alongside Rebecca Hall, Kelly McDonald, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, and Hugh Laurie… but it’s also written and directed by the man who gave us Get Hard. If you detect a “no shit, Sherlock” gag coming from the direction of this film, you’ve got the right idea.
Pitching itself as a a strangely belated parody of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, the film picks up after the evil Professor Moriarty (Fiennes) has gone into hiding in America, and largely concerns itself with the friendship between Sherlock Holmes (Ferrell) and Dr John Watson (Reilly). When their old nemesis issues a death threat against Queen Victoria, (Ferris) the duo encounter a mystery that will test them to their limits.
This review is written with the view that Step Brothers is a modern masterpiece – a kind of reverse Bugsy Malone about a family in arrested development, whose plot is an utterly circumstantial reason to string together some sublimely stupid setpieces. Sherlock Holmes stories are not naturally suited to this kind of plotless laugh-fest, but at its best, this one can’t hold a candle to it.
While there are a couple of inspired gags, including a take-off of Ghost that involves sponging cake from a cadaver and an honest-to-goodness musical number with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, these only really stand out because of how humdrum the rest of it is. In a film like Step Brothers, the insanity never lets up long enough for you to single out any one thing as unusual.
With so many different takes on Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters in pop culture in recent years, this has some distance to go in order to be distinctive. Even in terms of comedies, it doesn’t hold a candle to the underappreciated Without A Clue, which starred Michael Caine as “Sherlock Holmes”, the dimwitted actor who serves as a faceman for Ben Kingsley’s Dr Watson.
That’s a take so good that you could remake it today, but in the case of Holmes & Watson, it seems they weren’t necessarily ready to put the work in. The core dynamic is similar to that of another Ferrell and Reilly collaboration, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, but that’s not even really unique as Sherlocks go.
Ferrell’s Holmes is a prodigious intellect (on the film’s own terms anyway) but an emotional dolt. He’s smarter than Ron Burgundy and any one of ten other Ferrell characters you could name, but it’s still a role that the star could play in his sleep, and he largely does. Reilly fares better, because as one of the best and funniest American actors working today, he’s able to elevate his beleaguered Watson above the woefully weak material.
There’s an extraordinary bunch of actors here, all more or less playing it as it lays. The only exception is Lauren Lapkus. Playing a woman who we’re told was raised by cats, she’s given almost nothing to work with, but she turns it into a physical comedy tour de force, gazing dispassionately at a besotted Sherlock as she gnaws on a raw onion. If nothing else, she’s acting like she’s in a Step Brothers movie.
In the hands of a director like Adam McKay, this might have been something at least half as special as that. But with McKay turning his hand to exasperated true-life comedies about recent American history, like The Big Short and the upcoming Vice, we get Etan Cohen, a filmmaker who’s only really well known for his name being so similar to a Coen brother’s that he confused Bill Murray into signing up for Garfield.
This one feels similarly confused, affecting the tone of previous, funnier films, but often missing the mark by miles. It’s compounded by the score – composer Mark Mothersbaugh seems to have been directed to base his score specifically on Hans Zimmer’s distinctive work on the Ritchie movies and coupled with the specific visual references to those films, it serves to remind you of how much more fun those movies were.
Holmes & Watson feels like an artefact from a parallel timeline where these two have been playing these characters on Saturday Night Live for the last five years or so. With a few good laughs, it’s a decent sketch that has been extended rather than expanded from a very basic premise. Needless to say, if you see only one John C. Reilly movie with a joke about Kelly McDonald’s accent and an original song by Alan Menken at the cinema this week, go and see Ralph Breaks The Internet again instead.