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Elementary School Dropout

Will Ferrell
Will Ferrell
Columbia Pictures
 90 Minutes
Directed by: Etan Cohen
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly   
Holmes & Watson

Will Ferrell is a very funny guy. John C. Reilly is a very funny guy. Put them together, and you get two very funny movies, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. So, the thinking at Columbia Pictures probably went something like: “Let’s just put them together playing some very famous characters with whom Ferrell and Reilly have absolutely nothing in common and see what happens.” The result was Holmes & Watson, and what happens when you don’t give these two funnymen any actual humorous material to work with is… not much.


Holmes & Watson plays fast and loose with any sort of chronological accuracy, but the movie appears to take place around the year 1900, while Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) still reigned. The detective duo arrives for an audience at Buckingham Palace, which turns out to be a surprise birthday party for Holmes (Ferrell) arranged by Watson (Reilly). The party turns even more surprising when a dead body falls out of the birthday cake. The body is accompanied by a warning that the queen will be the next to die, in a couple of days.


Naturally, Holmes and Watson investigate, beginning with sitting in on the autopsy of the victim. This gives the pair to meet an American pathologist, Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall), who immediately hits it off with Watson, and her assistant Millie (Lauren Lapkus), to whom Holmes takes a fancy. Holmes deduces that the victim in the birthday cake was poisoned by a one-armed man named Gustav Cringer (Steve Coogan), who is an associate of Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). Cringer is holed up at a boxing gym. Holmes and Watson go to the gym, and Holmes winds up fighting a huge brute and coming off rather poorly.


Eventually, Holmes goes to his brother Mycroft (Hugh Laurie) for help, and Mycroft reveals information about the killer that leads Holmes to the conclusion that Watson is the guilty party. (Big spoiler: he’s not.) Watson winds up in jail, but the queen is still in danger, and Holmes has only a few hours left to realize the error of his ways, catch the real killer, and absolve Watson.


It’s hard to say how the storyline of Holmes & Watson might have played out in a serious movie, and, to be frank, this plot is somewhat like what we’ve seen in “real” Holmes films in recent years. However, it’s pretty clear early on that writer/director Etan Cohen was only interested in coming up with the most bizarre plot twists imaginable on the theory that weird equals funny. It doesn’t. Instead, the results of these plot twists are head-scratching dead ends, detours, and red herrings that make little sense and aren’t the slightest bit amusing. Nor does director Cohen ever decide how to have his lead actors play the characters. At times, they come off as complete nincompoops and at other times merely stuffy and wrongheaded twits. Of course, not once are they portrayed as the detective geniuses created by Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, the best example of Holmes’s legendary deductive abilities comes in the film’s opening sequence, a prologue showing how the schoolboy Holmes turned the tables on the bullies who tormented him. That five-minute sequence shows more wit and cleverness than the entire rest of the movie.


Admittedly, there are a few good jokes scattered throughout Holmes & Watson. (Ironically, the single best joke in the movie is a surprise celebrity cameo at the very end of the film, a joke in which neither Ferrell nor Reilly really figure.) Most of the attempts at humor revolve around the contrast between late Victorian technology and that of today. At one point, Watson insists on taking a selfie with Holmes and Queen Victoria (see clip below), a marginally amusing sight gag that is somehow stretched out into the centerpiece for a lengthy bit of slapstick when the queen gets conked on the head by the oversized box camera used in the selfie. The scene resembles a balloon deflating, as all the humor escapes rather quickly, leaving the characters to muddle through a lot of tiresome slapstick that makes a Three Stooges short feel inspired.


Holmes & Watson also tries to satirize Guy Ritchie’s overly stylized Sherlock Holmes films featuring Robert Downey, Jr. Ritchie’s quirkiness is ripe for mockery, but Cohen’s attempts at humor make Ritchie appear a comic genius. In one sequence, Holmes is trying to use a cricket bat to swat a mosquito resting on a glass case containing a hive of killer bees. Holmes performs all the calculations in his head while, in typical Ritchie style, graphics of the equations appear on the screen. Then, Holmes swings… and you can imagine the result. Actually, you probably can’t imagine the result, because the ensuing chaos is even more ridiculous and less humorous than you could possibly guess.


The saddest note of all about Holmes & Watson is how it squanders a terrific supporting cast that features actors far more talented than the demands of their roles would typically require. Rob Brydon’s Inspector Lestrade isn’t the slightest bit funny, nor does he make an effective foil. Ralph Fiennes appears in about two scenes and probably spent half a day on set, if that, as did Hugh Laurie. The filmmakers even manage to botch the seemingly surefire gag of having an announcer intone, “Let’s get ready to rumble” before Holmes’s boxing match. Instead of having famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer utter his famous phrase (which probably would have been funny), the film uses Buffer’s brother Bruce to deliver a far less amusing knockoff.


Not counting the thoroughly enjoyable juvenile prequel, Holmes & Watson contained about a half-dozen decent jokes scattered through its 90-minute running time. Etan Cohen seems to have no knack for comedy, either writing or directing, and he has even less of a feel for what has made the Sherlock Holmes character an icon for several generations. It’s certainly possible for filmmakers to milk the character for laughs, as several films have done, but I rarely had the impression that I was watching a spoof of Holmes and Watson per se. Instead, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly seemed stuck in an extended version of one of those last-ten-minutes dull sketches on Saturday Night Live playing two random guys. Actually, that would probably have been considerably funnier than this movie. The game is most definitely not afoot here; it’s elementary that moviegoers should avoid Holmes & Watson.

In this clip, John C. Reilly takes a selfie of himself and Will Ferrell with the Queen.

Read other reviews of Holmes & Watson: 

Holmes & Watson (2018) on IMDb