Holmes and Watson review

The warning signs come early in Holmes & Watson that this will be a painful experience. The cinematic reunion of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, a decade removed from Step Brothers, should be triumphant and hilarious, as opposed to a desperate, sweaty mess. But there are implications that the final product has been through the editing room multiple times, leaving a movie with no comedic rhythms or consistent tone.

As the title suggests, Ferrell and Reilly play Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively, at the height of the former’s power. Holmes begins the film by once again thwarting his nemesis James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, one of many overqualified British actors in this film) by revealing that the criminal has absconded to America and hired a lookalike patsy to take the fall for his evil doings. Soon, Holmes and Watson, the latter of whom tries his valiant best to be Holmes’ co-detective, are on the case to stop the murder of the Queen by Moriarty, with the help of an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and her mute companion (Lauren Lapkus).

The first problem is the accents. Of course, it’s not surprising that neither Ferrell’s nor Reilly’s English accent is good — that’s the joke. But that is the extent of the joke, and there are a lot of lazy jokes here, one-note gags that are too easy for the actors to make. Writer/director Etan Cohen (of Get Hard) seems unable to decide whether he wants to make a full-on parody of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, or if he just wants his actors to continually make elbow-nudging references to the 21st century. Half of the film aims for parody, such as multiple slow-motion sequences in which we see how Sherlock’s mind works (just as was the case with the Robert Downey, Jr.-led films). The other half features things like Sherlock wearing a Make England Great Again hat (har, har), or a starstruck Watson trying to take a selfie with the Queen (ho, ho).

holmes and watson clip

There is, unfortunately, not much in Cohen’s script that feels terribly removed from a lot of bro-heavy comedies of the last 10 to 15 years. Though both Holmes and Watson become enamored with their American counterparts, it’s the relationship between Watson and the Hall character that apparently threatens to place a metaphorical wrench in the men’s lifelong friendship. (The barely-explored subplot wherein Holmes grapples with his own romantic feelings is at least worth it for the Harpo Marx-esque reaction shots courtesy of the very funny Lauren Lapkus.) The idea of yet another male-bonding comedy is just too tired, even when it’s punctuated by, of all things, a musical sequence written by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

Ferrell, unlike Reilly, has basically one note to play, and it’s the same one he’s been playing for a while. Being obnoxiously, overconfidently pompous is his forte, but nearly 15 years after first playing Ron Burgundy, it’s getting to feel a bit old hat. Will Ferrell remains a very talented actor, but (and I say this as a great admirer of both Anchorman and Step Brothers) it might be time to put this character type to rest. At least the last time his pompous type worked, in The LEGO Movie, Ferrell was playing the bad guy. Here, as in other roles, Sherlock is still the hero.

As mentioned above, the two leads are joined by a cast full of recognizable UK actors all doing the kind of work that makes you hope the paycheck was worth it. Aside from Fiennes (who’s in maybe five minutes) and Hall, there’s Rob Brydon as Inspector Lestrade, Steve Coogan, Pam Ferris, a wisely uncredited Hugh Laurie, and Kelly Macdonald as Holmes’ housemaid Mrs. Hudson. Macdonald gets a bit more to do, though this is now the second 2018 film (along with Ralph Breaks the Internet) featuring both her and Reilly that also include a joke made at the expense of her delightful Scottish brogue. The ensemble all plods through a script that doesn’t ask much of them, aside from making even more jokes about old-fashioned norms — such as how autopsies were performed — or historical events. (The end of the film is set on the Titanic on the eve of its departure, so there are lots of jokes about it being a very safe ship, a remarkable vessel on which nothing could ever go wrong, etc.)

Holmes & Watson feels six years too late. Six years ago, a parody of the Sherlock Holmes films might have felt a bit more enjoyable, and capitalizing on the success of other Will Ferrell-starring comedies like Step Brothers and The Other Guys would’ve been shrewd. But the Guy Ritchie films have been rightfully supplanted by the sterling BBC revival starring Benedict Cumberbatch, so this iteration of Sherlock, parodic or not, is trapped in an earlier time. In 2018, this movie just feels hacky. I leave you with this note: Holmes & Watson didn’t screen for critics, so I headed out to my very packed local multiplex on Christmas Night to see the film, in a sold-out theater. Only a handful of people audibly laughed throughout the film, one of whom was seated next to me. About 50 minutes into the film, this laugher got up and walked out, and did not return. He might have had the right idea.

/Film Rating: 2 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.