Coroners of comic failure will find much to uncover in the corpse of “Holmes & Watson,” a thoroughly tedious and never-amusing spoof of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.
Does the fault lie in the fact that current iterations of Holmes — the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC series, the Guy Ritchie movies, even CBS’ “Elementary” — aren’t all that faithful to the material, so satirizing it seems irrelevant? Could it be that the script by director Etan Cohen (“Get Hard”) never had a second draft? Or did Cohen not worry that everything on the page was not particularly funny because stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly would somehow will this painful material into amusement merely by showing up on set?
The results are singularly awful, but there are three people who can emerge unscathed from this fiasco: Rebecca Hall, who elicits mild chuckles (the closest this film gets to laughter) as an American doctor who thinks 19th century medicine is as modern as science gets; costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (“The Brothers Bloom”), who brings color and wit to her period creations; and the marketing person at Sony who didn’t pre-screen the film for critics, thus quashing advance word and ensuring it would be seen too late to make the deadline for most Worst of the Year lists.
What plot there is revolves around Sherlock Holmes (Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (Reilly) trying to stop a nefarious scheme by Professor Moriarity (Ralph Fiennes) to murder Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris, “Call the Midwife”). Watson falls for Dr. Grace Hart (Hall), who pushes him to have Holmes treat him like a co-detective and not merely a sidekick, while Holmes is smitten by Millie (Lauren Lapkus), who has apparently been raised by feral cats. And that’s about it.
Granted, the story should, under better circumstances, exist merely as the hat rack upon which jokes hang, but there’s nary a laugh to be found here. Most of the stabs at humor revolve around anachronism (Watson puts “Unchained Melody” on a Victrola, and he and Hart have “Ghost”-style romantic interplay while conducting an autopsy), physical bits (our heroes knock Victoria about like Frank Drebin tackling Elizabeth II in “The Naked Gun”) or Holmes’ arrogance, and none of them land.
I found myself watching moments like, say, Holmes and Watson traveling to a rough part of London, where streetwalkers beat and rob their carriage driver as they walk away obliviously, and thinking, “Okay, that’s a funny idea. But I’m not laughing.”
A stellar supporting cast is put to waste here, if not downright desecrated; besides Fiennes, we get appearances from Steve Coogan, Kelly Macdonald, Rob Brydon and Hugh Laurie, all of whom were, one hopes, well compensated for adding this embarrassment to their résumés. (Laurie, it should be noted, plays Mycroft Holmes, a role that previously allowed his onetime comedy partner Stephen Fry to steal “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” out from under Robert Downey, Jr. Laurie neither takes nor is given a similar opportunity in this film.)
Ferrell continues to wander further away from his best moments as a screen actor — and it’s his own fault for reteaming with the guy who made “Get Hard” — and Reilly’s overall lack of subtlety is particularly crushing, given that this year has seen him give two of his finest performances, in “The Sisters Brothers” and “Stan and Ollie.”
“Stan and Ollie” is a movie about a comedy duo that has seen better days, while “Holmes & Watson” merely stars one.