Dir: Etan Cohen. Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Kelly Macdonald, Rebecca Hall, Pam Ferris. Cert 12A, 90 mins.
Holmes & Watson wasn’t shown at all to the press in advance of its release. At one London cinema, its very first public screening on Boxing Day morning was abandoned on the grounds that the projector wasn’t working properly. You can tell just why the cinema manager there didn’t do more to get it shown. This turns out to be a Christmas turkey of a movie – a comedy detective mystery that will dismay Sherlock Holmes lovers and frustrate fans of its stars, Will Ferrell and John C Reilly.
Ferrell plays Holmes. It’s hard to believe the actor so funny in Anchorman and so often touched with comic genius is so leaden here. Reilly is wonderful as Oliver Hardy in new drama Stan & Ollie but, like Ferrell, struggles here with a screenplay that gives him so little to work with.
Other prominent members of the cast – Ralph Fiennes as villain Moriarty, Kelly Macdonald as a slatternly and very promiscuous Mrs Hudson, Steve Coogan as a one-armed tattoo artist, Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s smarter brother Mycroft – don’t fare any better.
The film starts in early 1880s London with a despondent Dr Watson recently returned from the Afghan war. Holmes isn’t just the world’s greatest detective. He also grows giant vegetables and is very angry at Watson landing headfirst on top of his prized marrow. Nonetheless, Watson moves into the detective’s Baker Street apartment and becomes his devoted friend and amanuensis.
Ferrell’s Holmes speaks in an effete English accent. He likes a morning sniff of cocaine to get his brain ticking. Early on, the film has its droll moments. We see Holmes trying to kill a deadly mosquito with a cricket bat and inadvertently unleashing a swarm of killer bees in the process.
Mrs Hudson is almost caught in flagrante with Mark Twain. There’s a courtroom scene involving masturbation. (Explaining onanism to the judge, Holmes and Watson tell the baffled judge that the suspect “pours his own tea”.) Rob Brydon looks suitably exasperated as Inspector Lestrade, continually being belittled by Holmes. Rebecca Hall turns up as Grace Hart, a mysterious and glamorous American doctor whose expertise confounds both Holmes and Watson. (They can’t believe that a woman is capable of holding down such a job.)
Writer-director Etan Cohen throws in every last cliché about Victorian London that he can summon up. We get street kids with dirty faces who look as if they’ve escaped from Oliver Twist. There are scenes of beer drinking in East End pubs, of darkened alleyways and ruffian-filled streets which invoke memories of Jack the Ripper. Queen Victoria (a stony faced Pam Ferris) is shown looking very unamused when Dr Watson gets too touchy feely with her. Cohen also includes plenty of anachronisms.
Rap music plays over the credits. A key scene plays on the Titanic (even though the ocean liner didn’t make its one and only voyage until 1912). Gags about selfies and even veiled references to Donald Trump are part of the mix.
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The storytelling style is episodic in the extreme. The film consists of a series of comic sketches, loosely strung together. Several of these involve Holmes’s headgear. (He hasn’t yet alighted on the deerstalker and seems to think that a fez or cowboy hat might serve him just as well.) A plot is afoot to murder the Queen. Holmes needs to work out whether Moriarty (thought to have buzzed off to America) is behind it.
Holmes and Watson play chess together without a board. They also play “rock, paper, scissors”. (Holmes can always see several moves ahead of his partner – one reason why Watson is never granted co-detective status.) The two get drunk together and Watson sends a very salacious “intoxigram” to Dr Hart. Holmes, meanwhile, becomes smitten by Dr Hart’s onion eating companion, Millicent (Lauren Lapkus), who was raised by feral wolves.
He is shown vomiting in the morgue and urinating down his trouser leg (not something we can ever imagine happening with Basil Rathbone or Benedict Cumberbatch). The film reaches its absolute nadir in a Les Misérables-style musical scene in which the characters give vent to their emotions in a song.
Occasionally, the humour is well observed. Dr Hart has a nice line about the superiority of the American justice system over its British equivalent. No citizen (she points out to Holmes) can be found guilty without first being tried by a “jury of white, property owning men”. Ferrell wears that familiar look of beatific and deadpan innocence. His comic timing is still impeccable but that alone can’t come close to salvaging a film that has been put together in such an elementary way.
Holmes & Watson is out in UK cinemas now
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