The Pitch: An exceptionally Step Brothers-ian pair of alleged geniuses, Detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Doctor John Watson (John C. Reilly), are on the hunt as usual for their nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). But when Sherlock becomes convinced that the real Moriarty has left the country, and that a copycat is pulling the strings, London is thrown into chaos. Soon there’s a threat against the crown, bodies begin to disappear, and the detectives have to depend on the help of the brilliant American doctor Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) to save the day.
Sounds like a pretty fun setup for a powers-of-deduction caper, right? Get ready to be disappointed.
No Room For Activities: Aside from their shared presence in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues five years ago, Ferrell and Reilly haven’t come together onscreen since Step Brothers ten years ago. The following around both that movie and Talladega Nights was surely a major inspiration for their reunion here, but Holmes & Watson offers virtually nothing that made either of those films so memorable. The pacing is slapdash, the jokes a mix of first-take sparring riffs and unbearable shoehorned gags about SoulCycle and selfies existing in the Victorian period. A gifted roster of supporting actors give their best to scenes which appear to have been cut and re-dubbed to the point of barely resembling whatever was originally filmed. There’s no style or comic inspiration. It’s good for a small handful of polite snorts, maybe, but not one big laugh in 89 minutes.
A Quick Word on Modern Studio Comedy: It’s not often you watch a movie that seems to be racing to end itself as quickly as possible, but that’s the impression that Holmes & Watson gives off for the majority of its runtime. That’s not to say that writer/director Etan Cohen‘s comic ideas set its performers up to succeed (it absolutely does not), but that the choppy nature of what made it to screen was never going to do anybody involved a favor. Middling-to-bad studio comedies built around a marketable name (or names) are nothing new; they go back to the earliest days of Hollywood, in fact. But even gifted improvisational actors won’t always find the perfect laugh line on the first attempt.
Yet there’s a growing reliance on famous comedians inherently being interpreted as funny, whether the movie around them is giving them anything especially funny to do or not. It’s a misconception that continues to drag down an entire era of comedy, and Holmes & Watson is one of the most egregious examples yet.
The Verdict: Holmes & Watson is the kind of sloppy production that’s almost easier to pity than hate. Watching a roster of stellar performers (Fiennes, Hall, Steve Coogan, Kelly Macdonald, Rob Brydon) strain for the most forgiving of laughs against material so lifeless borders on depressing after a while. The small handful of moments that do land usually emerge from sheer exertion, whether in Lauren Lapkus‘ committed absurdity as a feral woman or in the kind of bawdy Three Stooges banter that made Ferrell and Reilly such a beloved comedy duo to begin with.
Again, however, these moments almost feel incidental to what Holmes & Watson is trying to do. The movie itself is often confused about that purpose, racing through certain key stretches of storytelling with newspaper headlines set to anachronistic, generic pop music. At other times, it strains to tell a semi-competent Sherlock tale, but that mostly just amounts to stealing the most exciting visual motifs from Guy Ritchie’s Holmes movies and BBC’s Sherlock alike. Even by the standards of shapeless comedies, there’s almost nothing to Holmes & Watson. It’s a good idea, finished badly, chopped up to meet the inconsistent standards of focus groups and released for audiences who might have liked these actors in other, better movies. When people talk about Hollywood movies feeling more and more like product, this is what they’re driving at.
Where’s It Playing?: Nationwide, although probably not for very long.