Holmes & Watson is a lazy comedy that wastes a fun premise and talented cast on tired jokes, tasteless gags, and sometimes bafflingly outdated humor.
Holmes & Watson is a peculiar concoction, put mildly. It was announced all the way back in 2008, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell playing the film's respective namesakes. The project then went on radio silence for eight years, at which point Etan Cohen (who wrote the script) was set to direct with Ferrell now playing Sherlock Holmes and John C. Reilly playing Dr. Watson instead. The film clearly wants to tap into Ferrell and Reilly's chemistry from Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, but doesn't seem to understand how to use them properly. Unfortunately, that problem extends to the movie's other ingredients too. Holmes & Watson is a lazy comedy that wastes a fun premise and talented cast on tired jokes, tasteless gags, and sometimes bafflingly outdated humor.
A comedic take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous crime-solving duo, Holmes & Watson introduces Sherlock as a schoolboy in England circa 1867. Bullied and picked upon by his peers, the young Sherlock disavows emotions completely, gets everyone else in his school expelled, and devotes his studies to becoming a brilliant detective. Years later, a middle-aged Sherlock (Ferrell) is now the most famous sleuth in the world, with his loyal associate Dr. John Watson (Reilly) - whose contributions to their crime-solving are always ignored by Sherlock and the public - ever by his side.
When his great nemesis Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) is captured by Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon) and the London police, Sherlock deduces they've caught an imposter and has Moriarty released, much to Lestrade's dismay. Shortly after, a threat is made on Queen Victoria's (Pam Ferris) life, and it falls to Sherlock and Watson to find and arrest the mastermind behind this planned assassination. But with the clock ticking, can the crime-solving duo get to the bottom of this mystery before the killer's deadline?
Holmes & Watson is missing a key ingredient from Talladega Nights and Step Brothers - namely, director Adam McKay. Where McKay knew how to create comedic scenarios that allowed Ferrell and Reilly room to improvise, Cohen's approach seems far more dependent on scripted jokes. That wouldn't actually be a problem if his film could settle on a clear throughline, like McKay's movies with Ferrell and Reilly had. Instead, Cohen's script recycles Ferrell's character arc from his 2000s comedies (his Sherlock is an egomaniacal jerk who doesn't appreciate Watson) and can't decide if his comical take on the super-sleuth is dumber than he thinks or too smart for his own good. Reilly isn't given much to work with here either, and is left trying to get additional mileage from listless scenes that subject Dr. Watson to all sorts of comedic torment (be it emotional neglect or mean-spirited slapstick).
Speaking of the 2000s: there are a number of jokes in Holmes & Watson that feel like a relic from that decade's comedies, Ferrell's vehicles especially. For example, there's a running gag where Sherlock can't believe Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) - an American physician whom Watson is attracted to - is a real doctor because she's a woman, and it's as uninspired as it sounds. Cohen, who previously cowrote Tropic Thunder and wrote/directed Get Hard (which Ferrell also starred in), further attempts to satirize Victorian-era medicine and health care with one-off jokes about shock therapy and Londoners practicing their breathing by smoking, but his approach is too scattershot to earn more than an easy laugh or two. The film also throws in a handful of references to timely issues like the gender pay gap and the Trump administration, but it's too little to hide how much of Holmes & Watson feels like it was written ten years ago (which, in fact, it partly was).
It's further evident how much Holmes & Watson changed in response to the Sherlock Holmes adaptations released since its inception. The movie parodies Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies by having Ferrell's Sherlock plan his attacks in advance, much like Robert Downey Jr.'s iteration does in Ritchie's films. Holmes & Watson by and large succeeds at imitating those fight scenes stylistically, which is why it's too bad it can't come up with a better punchline than having Sherlock mess up in the most obvious way each time. The period costumes by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (Vanity Fair) are generally handsome and impressively detailed too, as is the set direction by Niamh Coulter (Far from the Madding Crowd). That makes it all the more disappointing when they end up wasted on a comedy that's visually flat and otherwise unflattering.
Cohen also wastes a pretty terrific cast here by either failing to tap into their comedic abilities (see Fiennes as Moriarty, who's barely in the movie at all) or saddling them with running jokes that simply don't work and carry on for much too long (like having Hugh Laurie's Mycroft Holmes engage in a "conversation" with Sherlock without actually speaking). The Holmes & Watson cast isn't to blame either; they're perfectly game for whatever silliness Cohen asks of them and make the most of whatever they're given to do, however patience-trying it might be. Lauren Lapkus even earns some actual laughs as Millie, a romantic interest for Sherlock who was supposedly raised by stray cats. However, for every rare joke that lands, there are a half-dozen that don't, and the film's short runtime really drags for it.
There are fleeting moments where Holmes & Watson feels like one of Ferrell's better absurd comedies, but for the most part it's a botched attempt to realize what sounds like an enjoyably goofy idea on paper (Sherlock Holmes by way of Step Brothers). It's also a film that either should've been released years ago or not at all, rather than being dumped in theaters well past its expiration date. Fans of Farrelly and Reilly's previous movies together may still find things to enjoy about this one, but even then it's probably best saved for a viewing at home down the road. Better yet, you can spend that money on watching one of Reilly's good movies that's now in theaters (like Ralph Breaks the Internet or, later this week, Stan & Ollie), instead.
Holmes & Watson is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 89 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for crude sexual material, some violence, language and drug references.
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- Holmes and Watson (2018) release date: Dec 25, 2018