Monday, January 14, 2019

Glutton for Punishment: HOLMES & WATSON

by JB
There might actually be a movie here… somewhere… you can just barely make it out it through all the bullshit.

Audiences expect a Sherlock Holmes movie to be clever, and audiences expect a comedy to be clever, but here we have a comedy take on Sherlock Holmes that is quite simply… witless.

How long must we endure Will Farrell’s endless parade of boorish, aggressive man-children? From Frank the Tank in Old School to Ron Burgundy in Anchorman to Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights to Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory to Brennan Huff in Step Brothers and all the dolts in between, has any comedian since Adam Sandler worn out our collective patience playing the same variation on a theme for so long? Good Christ, Anchorman was released fifteen fucking years ago!
Maybe this “ironic toxic white male privilege” topcoat could somehow be applied successfully to the famous Sherlock Holmes. Maybe a better writer and a better actor could have pulled that off. In Holmes & Watson, it just doesn’t work. Holmes is always right and acts insufferable, shouts, and throws tantrums if anyone doubts him. Hasn’t the trope of Holmes’ absolute superiority been completely played out in popular media during the 132 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the character? Is this the best they could do: Holmes as terrible wunderkind and Watson as his long-suffering friend?

John C. Reilly tries here; he really does. Such is his skill at acting and such is my love for his performances that his presence alone kept me from walking out on this terrible movie. Reilly has the ability to take really weak material and turn it into something funny. My one laugh during this film was when Reilly’s Watson, convinced no one in the scene is actually listening to him, says quietly, “Because I don’t deserve nice things.”

I guess neither does the audience.
Speaking of the audience, I was alone in the theater. Such is the magnificence of this film that by the seventh day of its release, it was playing to empty theaters.

Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, another patron walked in about forty minutes into the tfilm, sat two rows behind me, ate a very noisy lunch, and then walked out before the film was over. There’s a perfect blurb for the DVD cover: “Holmes & Watson: The Perfect Film For When You’re Looking For Somewhere to Sit Down and Eat Your Lunch.”

Speaking of lunch, Gene Siskel once famously asked, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” The answer here is a resounding no. The cast here is wasted. Kelly McDonald, Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Laurie, Lauren Lapkus, and Rebecca Hall all spent a few weeks in impeccable period costumes, eating what I hope was exquisite craft service, and collected a paycheck. You know that you are in trouble when two of your supporting performers (Coogan and Brydon) trading Michael Caine impressions off the cuff in their film The Trip is more entertaining than your entire scripted film. “They didn’t have to blow the bloody doors off, did they?”

TANGENT: At this point I need to invoke what I call the “Charlie Chaplin Rule.” Dozens of dozens of comedians are content to begin a task, muck it up, and think that mucking it up makes it funny. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Laurel and Hardy are one of the few comedy teams that were able to make incompetence funny because the incompetence plays off the strong characters they created. Ollie falling in a lake isn’t funny by itself; it’s funny because he has insisted that he is the only one who can be trusted NOT to fall in the lake. “Here, let me do it!” is a line popularized by Oliver Hardy, and it came to foreshadow all the times he took it on the chin because of his inflated ego and personal hubris.
But usually, it is so much funnier if the comedian is GOOD at what he is doing—or better yet, really good. When Chaplin puts on roller skates in The Rink or Modern Times, we expect him to flail about and do pratfalls, but he doesn’t. He is suddenly as graceful as a ballet dancer, the best skater in the movies. It’s beautiful to watch. Laurel and Hardy knew this too: on the rare occasions in their films when they sang or danced, they were never incompetent or amateurish; they showed themselves to be professional music hall performers. Oliver Hardy had a grace and precision rare in one his size and a warm, soothing singing voice that sounded like syrup on pancakes. It’s so unexpected that it’s funny.

Yet in Holmes & Watson, Ferrell and Reilly flounder around for the whole 90 minutes, executing poorly rehearsed and poorly filmed physical comedy, or making “jokes” that are not jokes (for example, they use an enormous turn-of-the-century camera on a bulky tripod to take a selfie.) They waste the audience’s time and the talents of their costars, all in the service of a plot which, if you have any prior knowledge of Holmes or of Hollywood casting traditions, you will have figured out in the film’s first ten minutes.
THE CRITICS RAVE: Jack Bottomly of Starburst called the film, “head-scratchingly unfunny.” Ben Kenigsberg of The New York Times suggested audiences “[smuggle] in booze to dispel the sense of dull routine.” Tony Libera of City Pages called the film “another level of awful." David Fear, writing in Rolling Stone, called Holmes & Watson "so painfully unfunny we're not sure it can legally be called a comedy.” Rafer Guzman of Newsday neatly summed it up when he concluded, “Holmes & Watson is one of those movies that goes beyond unfunny and into a comedy-cubist zone, where jokes are no longer recognizable and laughter is philosophically impossible.”

Holmes & Watson was the first film I saw in a theater in 2019. The rest of my movie year can only get better.


  1. Wow, what a choice to kick off the new year! �� But considering "no where to go but up"... inspired!


  2. I would also add Elf to Will Ferrell’s man-child roles, in a sense, but that succeeds to a greater degree in my opinion. At least now I can thank this column and Holmes & Watson for steering me to the skating sequence in Modern Times, which is delightful.

  3. To be fair, when Buddy confronts the department store Santa and says, "You're sitting on a throne of lies!" I thought that was one of the funniest movie lines of 20003. It's movies like Holmes & Watson that make us long for movies like... Elf.

    1. Oh I love Elf and I’m sure it’s waaaaay better than Holmes and Watson, which I will likely never see. I value the hours of my life too much.

  4. I laughed at 'no shit Sherlock', outside of that i wanted to shoot myself

    1. Another blurb for the DVD case! "I wanted to shoot myself!" --Kunider

  5. '"Holmes & Watson: The Perfect Film For When You’re Looking For Somewhere to Sit Down and Eat Your Lunch.”' Oh my! My brain is trying to come up with what happened here! Did they buy a ticket for something else? Or their budget for movies is so much more than mine. It is a shame it wasn't even entertaining enough to hold them for the rest of the movie!

    You mentioning dancing reminds me of a beloved comedy show here in Britain called The Vicar of Dibley. The wonderfully lovely Dawn French dances with the famous ballet dancer Darcey Bussell. What makes it so funny is that their routine is that it is set up that Dawn is meant to be Darcey's mirror image. She is so different to her in skill, and at the time body type, but I feel the joke is so endearing because it doesn't feel mean spirited, not mocking Dawn, because they are both doing the routine as if it is going perfectly. I always love that syle of humour: one that always feels warm spirited and like your laughing with friends and never feels cheap. I suppose we got crime caper parody styles done right before with the likes of The Thin Man and I am even a fan of the Rutherford Marple movies.

    I feel this might be biased but them not being English really kind of seems a bit of a jarring start to bein with. Starting with a mocking tone rather than loving tribute if that makes sense? I am all for my country being made fun of but I still want good jokes!

  6. While being far from Farrell's stronger works, I still found plenty to laugh at, and was smiling the whole way through. Although, I admit that they type of humour they're going for in a bit more down my alley than for most people.

    As JB wrote, John C. Reilly also is working hard to put in a good performance, and is quite funny as well, despite not having a ton of stuff to work with. I liked all the set pieces and costumes, but the "mystery" at the centre of the story wasn't terribly intriguing; although you could argue that is beside the point.

    Oh well! I guess it's better to have gotten enjoyment from something, than be disappointed!