The comedy so execrable that audiences evacuated before it ended. The abomination so unholy that Netflix allegedly doused holy water on it in rejection. The massive miscalculation that, at least for a time, registered a giant goose egg on Rotten Tomatoes.
Bound for box-office ignominy and an inevitable rout of its 2018 Razzie contenders, Holmes & Watson is the fourth* collaboration between Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, playing the title characters in that order. And it would certainly seem to be an unmitigated disaster.
If only the results were so elementary.
Sure, Holmes & Watson mines familiar ground, opening on yet another purposefully misattributed quote a la Ferrell and Reilly’s main works, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. It’s also a bountiful orchard of low-hanging fruit by way of anachronistic jokes that pad the movie to a commercially acceptable feature-length. Some are amusing, such as the continued presumption of cocaine, heroin and opiates as a pinnacle of medical treatment or an “intoxigram” as the drunk-text antecedent. Some are anemic, like the “platypus-faced self-photograph” preceding the duck-lips selfie.
But the film is a far sight funnier than writer-director Etan Cohen’s first outing with Ferrell (the witless prison comedy Get Hard). And even as Holmes & Watson never rises to Brothers’ sublimely absurd skewering of male maturity, it’s a brainier blunderbuss of buffoonish satire than Talladega. (Quite tough to hoist a convincingly rigid middle finger at NASCAR culture when your other hand’s fist-bumping the top brass to gain organizational support.)
Holmes & Watson presupposes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s standard-bearers for seamless logic are instead both utter dimwits dining out on long-faded success. Exuding even more fey-dandy energy than he did as Mugatu, Ferrell envisions Sherlock Holmes as an impudent man-baby as reliant on drugs to keep going as he is the codependency of his relationship with Dr. John Watson. Reilly indulges in spikier slapstick than usual to make Watson a trigger-happy dunce whose mantle of authority seems honorary at best.
We first meet Sherlock in his school days, bullied by his peers into kissing a donkey’s ass. After learning to “uncry” and lock away his emotions, Sherlock gets the entirety of his school expelled (leaving the teachers to focus solely on his intellect) and takes as his only friend a young John.
It’s no accident that the opening credits breeze through the pair’s salad days of criminal investigation. Holmes & Watson wants us to consider them as morons obsessed with public adulation and elevated perception of past glories that are, in all likelihood, more exaggerated than we’ve been led to believe. Sound like anyone we’ve heard from a lot for the last few years?
Sure, Cohen goes mallet-on-the-head about it with a couple of obvious verbal / sight gags, but it’s a winking dig at the continued selfish supremacy of the male ego. These are men who have utterly lost what little step they might have had in the first place and are, at least initially, incapable of admitting as much. (Indeed, the only people we really see Holmes get the drop on are the schoolmates he rats out in the prologue.)
Their bizarre moralism (note Reilly’s comment about “the wages of wanking” to Ralph Fiennes, taking the gig for a big check and perhaps this scene alone) and insistence on the most brutish solutions possible is as much of a howling cry about where we are now as a spoof-comedy can be. Indeed, it’s a better story of the perils in propping up those who purport to excel in their field than Vice (producer Adam McKay’s ostensibly more “respectable” film to open on Christmas).
Every five minutes, you’ll lose the film’s assassinate-the-Queen plot, such as it is and perhaps only peripherally involving Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty (Fiennes). That’s part of the point, as Holmes and Watson lose it, too. There’s even a joke about that in one of many laugh-aloud moments to take the piss out of both romanticized notions of 19th-century London and the Sherlock-vision popularized by the Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch incarnations.
It also wouldn’t be a Ferrell-Reilly jam without a buffet of non-sequitur delights on which to chomp like the raw onions Holmes insists will keep him healthy. There’s Reilly and Rebecca Hall (as a visiting doctor from America) flirting by rubbing frosting across a cake-covered corpse they’re about to cut open for autopsy There’s a musical number with more confident visual flair than anything in Mary Poppins Returns outside the animated sequence. (Co-written by Alan Menken, the song is also a doozy.) And then there’s … well, everything Lauren Lapkus is doing in the background of any scene, from gnawing on a giant lollipop to making feral eyes at Ferrell.
Smart about how it’s stupid, Holmes & Watson suggests an embrace of remorseless logic will only rot your soul and friendships. And it’s a shrewd use of fiction’s most prominent purveyors of said logic to deconstruct the ways in which it’s ill-advised. Yeah, it’s a movie in which John C. Reilly lactates, but it says more than you’d expect about the milk of human kindness.
* Who am I to not count Stonewall Jackson’s ghost in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues?