Courtesy of Sony
With characters as rich as the brilliant sleuth mastermind Sherlock Holmes and the cunning Dr. John Watson, there should be enough narrative materiel for ten feature length films (and pitting the two inside a comedic mindset is an even worthier case). And so it speaks volumes that Will Ferrell and John C Reilly - the two who brought forth what some consider a classic: “Step Brothers” - can’t save their latest pairing “Holmes and Watson” (a spoof on the Arthur Conan-Doyle novels) from never finding the right footing to make its thin 90 minute runtime sustainable.
Barely registering enough laughs to measure up to the deleted scenes of “Step Brothers” - “Holmes and Watson’s” biggest obstacle is that it can’t decide how stupid it wants to be. Etan Cohen (“Get Hard”) has the right intentions with casting Ferrell and Reilly, but those looking for the lightning in a bottle chemistry that made “Brothers” a household name - look no further.
The story picks up in England 1867 where we get background about Holmes childhood trauma, and how he was bullied into never having emotional feelings or attachments. Fast forward thirty years, and Holmes (Ferrell) and Watson (Reilly) are key components in the case against Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes who’ve I never seen more wasted in a movie). Though, with how silly and absurd the two’s antics are, you’d question just how critical either character is to the bottom line. (One laugh that does work is the fact that Holmes, at least in the novels, did cocaine quite a bit - which the film humorously amps up).
That’s not all that gets highlighted, Coen makes sure to rip off the formula from the Robert Downey Jr vehicle “Sherlock Holmes” (the one where he can pinpoint three moves ahead while brawling) except in this version, Holmes utilizes this tactic to kill, of all things, a mosquito.
That’s all fine, and I never questioned Ferrell and Reilly’s dedication to the material (it’s clear they knew what the contract stated), but the loose plotting involving the assassination of the Queen, the consistent political jabs (“Make England Great Again” is a hat worn by a character in the film) and misogynistic undertones slowly wear your patience. It almost felt like the filmmakers didn’t know which direction to take the picture, and then tried to throw constant zingers hoping one of them sticks. (Spoiler alert: Billy Zane has a cameo boarding the Titanic, but cameos only work if the audience gets the joke, simply announcing “Oh look it’s Billy Zane!” comes across as a cheap gimmick).
Rebecca Hall is tossed a bone as an ally (and peer) to the brigade as the American Dr. Grace Hart, who’s presences is only written for the purpose of being made a mockery of. The running gag of her occupation becomes quite tiresome, and - most of all - not funny. Female equality is important in the workplace, and “Holmes and Watson” shouldn’t make light of the material. If you’re going to write these types of characters, don’t write them for the purpose of being a punching bag for ill-advised jokes.
All that rubbish aside, “Holmes and Watson” still doesn’t leave you with much. You’ll see Holmes trying to deduce an algorithm for drunkenly peeing in the streets, and watch Watson start to lactate when poisoned for an experiment, but all the film really does is provide a portrait for scatalogical humor.
After all, these characters are supposed to be the greatest minds on the planet, and while comedy within this universe can be successful - part of the humor in the 2009 version of “Sherlock Holmes” worked because director Guy Ritchie let the actors find their moments - and “Holmes and Watson” occasionally showcases the wholesome bromance that Ferrell and Reilly have created over their career - but in this instance, the duo can’t crack the code of the film’s own self indulgence and clueless execution.