Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) very badly wants to take a picture with Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris), who’s visiting his and Sherlock Holmes’ (Will Ferrell) flat in order to insist that they take a case. It’s a tired but tried-and-true kind of comedic template, with a straight woman attempting to keep things serious while the buffoon (of buffoons, in this case) repeatedly ruins her efforts with gag after gag. Hence Watson’s use of a 19th-century camera like a smartphone on a selfie stick, which then bludgeons Queen Victoria and knocks her out cold.
This is one of many silly scenes that populate Holmes & Watson, Ferrell and Reilly’s first pairing since 2008’s Step Brothers. It’s also representative of just how tired and unoriginal the film’s antics are. One would think that when the history of modern cinema is rife with British actors playing Americans on screen, a movie that flips the equation with a property as decidedly English as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary detective would be ripe for comedy gold. Sadly, Holmes & Watson can’t even put forth enough of an effort to snag a bronze.
Written and directed by Etan Cohen, whose problematic Get Hard remains somewhat worse, Holmes & Watson imagines a more elementary version of the famous detective and his dutiful assistant, here embodied by the go-to comedy pairing of Ferrell and Reilly. On paper, it’s a concept that makes a lot of sense. The two actors took the comedy world by storm with 2005’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers merely three years after. Both of these films, but especially the latter, maintain a significant foothold in the pop cultural zeitgeist over a decade later. So of course their take on Sherlock Holmes will work!
Or, maybe not. More than anything, Holmes & Watson feels like a film that was made by people who, having grown up watching Ferrell and Reilly’s previous pairings (which were directed and co-written by the now very busy Oscar winner, Adam McKay) thought they could recapture the magic of McKay’s films by simply pointing a camera at these two men and saying action. What happens instead is a comedy that goes for the easiest gags possible, many of which are at the expense of women (i.e. Queen Victoria), and never really makes an effort to rise above fishing for anachronism-dependent jokes that won’t mean much in the next decade.
If these weren’t sinful enough, Holmes & Watson also employs a who’s who of British acting royalty that would make viewers think the material they were given was good enough to warrant their interest. Hence Ferris’s Queen Victoria, Ralph Fiennes’ Professor Moriarty, and Hugh Laurie’s Mycroft Holmes. Amazingly, however, the film manages to waste all three performers, which amount to little more than exaggerated cameos meant to prop up Ferrell and Reilly’s Holmes & Watson shtick.
Thankfully, Cohen and his team had enough good sense to cast some competitive, if not romantic, foils for the famous literary detective. This is especially true of Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall), an American abroad in London whose interest in the sciences proves as problematic as it is enticing for Watson. And in one of the film’s best roles, the hilarious Lauren Lapkus plays Hart’s mute assistant Millie, a woman who was supposedly raised by cats. Without uttering a single line throughout the movie, Lapkus manages to deliver more successful comedic beats than just about anyone else in the entire thing.
But that’s not enough to save the farce that is Holmes & Watson. Perhaps Sony Pictures knew what would happen when Cohen’s latest finally hit theaters on Christmas Day too, as the distributor opted against screening it for critics in advance. No word of mouth campaign, whether organic or engineered, was ever going to pop up to influence audiences for this lackluster comedy. Only Ferrell and Reilly’s reputation would accomplish this, though even that won’t be enough to save this cinematic cold case.