There’s a scene in Holmes & Watson where Detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are getting in disguise. Sherlock puts on a fake mustache and is instantly unrecognizable to anyone else in the film. Then, Sherlock rips Watson’s coat and smears him with steaming horse shit he’s picked up off the street. Watson is now a horseshit salesman. As they make their way down the street, Watson exclaims, “Horseshit for sale! Who will buy my horseshit?”
It was at this point that my expectations for anything great still to come truly dwindled. I couldn’t, based off my midway experience, help but assume that this gag was aimed a little bit at the audience as much as at the detective disguise trope. For hadn’t we, Will Farrell and John C. Reilly enthusiasts, just bought their horseshit, quite literally, to be sitting where we sat, viewing their film?
Let’s be clear, no one was clamoring for a Sherlock Holmes parody film. The last of Guy Ritchie’s two Holmes films was released seven years ago and primetime for a parody had come and gone. We had been clamoring for another installment of Ferrell-Reilly, ever since 2008’s Step Brothers. Yet the magic that made people love Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, or other collaborations between Will Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy or The Other Guys is not present here.
Holmes & Watson
Director: Etan Cohen
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Director Etan Cohen seems to have been the sole writer on the project, and as such, largely squanders the inherent comedy genius of his two stars. The story begins with a young Sherlock Holmes first going to school where we’re treated to a sort of condensed origin story for the superhuman detective. Holmes learns to shut down his emotions and hone his brain into a finely tuned weapon of deduction while simultaneously getting all of his classmates expelled from school. It’s unnecessary and a little laborious, as we’re all familiar with the concept of Sherlock Holmes. The backstory is not necessary, so please don’t delay the appearance of Ferrell and Reilly together onscreen any longer than necessary.
I was treated to several of my biggest laughs earlier in the film, in moments where Ferrell and Reilly’s unproven British accents and Sherlockian facades slipped, and their standard, manic energy took over. Watson, parodying Jude Law’s version from the Guy Ritchie films, is a gun-happy maniac whose pistols seem more a part of his hands than weapons. Whenever they make an appearance, it’s clear Watson doesn’t let them out to play nearly enough, as they spew hot lead with a ferociousness equal to any American west outlaw and then some. No time for banter or small talk, just time to shoot and shoot and shoot. It’s hilarious.
An early disposition to mimic the trademark breakdown of Sherlock’s inner monologs from the Ritchie films is put to good use, but then makes infrequent appearances throughout. Instead of true parody, the film falls prone to relying on making fun of the 19thcentury as a hole; looking for opportunities to crack simple jokes about the realities of the time, and several drawn out and not too clever montages pulling modern culture back in the past (selfies with old-style cameras on tripods and drunk dialing via telegraph).
The reason I was drawn to this film was the promise of putting Ferrell and Reilly into the roles of Holmes and Watson and allowing them free reign to be themselves as such. With these two actors, there’s no obligation to confine the characters to any sort of archetype; there’s not even an obligation to deal with a true mystery. Moriarty? Why bother? Invent a villain for Ferrell’s Holmes to match wits with. My point is, do anything to allow these powerhouse comics to break free from the constraints present in this film and do it bigger, do it better.
For example, if you’re going to present Holmes and Watson as getting drunk while on the case—truly take it all the way—show where that leads them! And that should never have been to a played out bit about sending an image of Watson’s penis via telegraph to a girl he fancies. Show me drunken Sherlock for the duration of the film; how’s the world’s finest detective when he’s blitzed off his ass for an entire feature?
Perhaps the most singularly frustrating thing about the film was its lack of rhythm. It hits some early high notes and several thereafter, but they become few and far between, eventually just falling flat. Where are the laughs? The movie features Kelly Macdonald, Ralph Fiennes, and Hugh Laurie, but you wouldn’t even notice based on how their acting talents are put to use. It feels like there’s a far superior version of this film somewhere in a parallel universe, one we were meant to see but were cheated of. Perhaps a not-director’s cut?
Ferrell and Reilly can’t not be funny. Just hearing them talk is usually enough to make one crack a grin. The fact that this movie doesn’t carry laughs throughout says a lot and none of it is very good.
On The Jimmy Kimmel show, Ferrell and Reilly joked that they initially shot the film with each of them playing both Holmes and Watson. Perhaps with roles reversed, the film delivers on all levels and one day we’ll see that cut, but in the meantime it’s really not even worth dwelling on.