Holmes on Film: Holmes & Watson (2018)

When I started thinking about doing this series of posts I didn’t plan on getting to Holmes & Watson early. Actually, to be more accurate, I didn’t expect that I’d stick with the series long enough to get to it at all.

So, why did I watch it at all? As it happens though I was ending a DVR service where it had been recorded and I thought it better to watch it before I lost it than to have to potentially pay to rent it in the future. There was also a little bit of me that thought maybe the critics and audiences at the time got it wrong and it might be worth a reevaluation. It helped that after five years my memory of the trailer had almost completely faded.

I began to suspect that my hopes would be dashed shortly into the piece but kept going, thinking I ought to give Ferrell and Reilly a chance. Early glimpses of Fiennes and Ferris also had me at least curious about the other members of the cast and to see what they would do. By about halfway through all hope had gone and I found I was watching for a different reason. Now I had to finish the film and post about it, just to be sure that I would never have to watch it again…

Now, on with the movie…

Holmes & Watson

The film opens with a short prologue that tries to give the sleuth a backstory, establishing a framing theme for the picture of Holmes’ struggles to find friendship. Watson is, of course, the exception but the film’s take on the relationship is that he is simply so in awe of Holmes’ abilities that he never speaks up for himself or the way he is being treated.

The concept of focusing on Holmes and Watson as a friendship, albeit a rather more dysfunctional one here than elsewhere, can work quite well. Billy Wilder’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes for instance is at least as much about the nature of that friendship as the mystery, and both of the Robert Downey Jr. films make that relationship central to their themes. It’s also quite central to the plot of Sherlock Gnomes, an animated movie released earlier that same year.

Holmes & Watson is somewhat different in that it is clearly intended to play as a comedy and only adopts the structure of a mystery adventure as a vehicle for silliness. While there is a case they are nominally investigating, a corpse stuffed into a giant cake and the prospect of a plot against Queen Victoria, there is really no deduction or plot to speak of at all beyond the testing of that friendship.

There are some Holmes-specific gags. For example, we are treated to several gags playing on the idea that Holmes hasn’t entirely devised his signature look yet. Low-hanging stuff. There are also several parodies of the Downey-style visual representation of Holmes’ previsioning of action which felt a little bit fresher, though where they are headed will quickly be apparent.

Most of the gags though were based on the concepts that Holmes is socially (and sexually) inept and that Watson is desperate to ingratiate himself to people more brilliant than himself. All this is delivered with copious amounts of childish bickering. This is a formula that worked quite well for the stars in other movies, both of whom can deliver a funny line. Unfortunately here there are just none to be found and the stars’ starched but awkward accent work doesn’t help much either.

The scripted gags which came closest to working for me concerned Victorian science and medicine. Reilly and Rebecca Hall’s enthusiastic delivery of that material does at least make it punchy, and those exchanges do go somewhere unexpected during an autopsy. Most of the laughs I had though came at the bodies of the newspaper articles briefly thrown up on screen, some of which are far sharper than any of the material found in the script.

The supporting cast, which contains a number of familiar faces in addition to those named, also fare poorly. It is hard to imagine how so many talented people found themselves attached to this movie. Fiennes could have been interesting casting as a Moriarty, and I did at least enjoy the symmetry of making Hugh Laurie its Mycroft (for those who haven’t seen it, his former comedy partner Stephen Fry plays the part opposite Downey). Rob Brydon fares a little bit better as a rather frustrated Lestrade, but few are given much to work with.

It’s all a bit of a mess and a waste of some otherwise pretty talented individuals. It’s also not even the funniest film about the dysfunctional and unequal partnership of Holmes and Watson to have been released in 2018 but more on that another day…

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