[The sad recent demise of editor Marvin Kaye means also the end of the magazine he edited, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine – which had quite a backlog of my film review in hand. I’m sharing those columns here.]
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson have been used as comedy characters since early silent films gave deerstalkers and magnifying glasses to any number of baggy pants slapstick stars and had them fall down on the job. Since Billy Wilder’s witty but melancholy/romantic The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), big screen Sherlocks have overwhelmingly been seen in send-ups, either psychologically deconstructed (The Seven-per-cent Solution, 1976, Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985, Mr Holmes, 2015) or simply parodied (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, 1975, The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It, 1977, Without a Clue, 1988). The two Guy Ritchie Holmes films (2009, 2011) give Robert Downey Jr’s detective a clownish make-over. Murder By Decree (1979) is almost unique in post-Wilder Holmesian cinema in taking the detective, his supporting cast and the crimes he investigates seriously.
In 2018, two comedy Holmes films were released – Sherlock Gnomes, as I reported in an earlier column, was surprisingly fresh and entertaining, on its own merits and as a gloss on Conan Doyle … Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, snuck out into theatres over the Christmas holidays and not screened for critics, is a failure on every level and seems destined to join such legendary not-funny-at-all comedy misfires as Yellowbeard, The Love Guru and Master of Disguise on the roster of seal-it-in-a-can-and-bury-it cinema. It’s the worst Holmes-related film since Paul Morrissey’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1977) and I don’t envy the Holmesian movie buff who watches those two in a double bill to determine which wastes more genuine talent. The Morrissey film at least had the bones of a decent plot, so Cohen – whose name is an anagram of the much more talented Ethan Coen – might be able to claim the distinction of making the worst theatrically-released Sherlock Holmes film of all time. In the UK, the film was released in what seems to be an abbreviated version – a prologue with Holmes at school, which some American reviews suggest was the funniest part of the film, has been dropped, and end credits suggest cameos for Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin that aren’t in evidence (to judge by the joke showings for Mark Twain, Harry Houdini and Albert Einstein, no great loss).
In this version, Watson (John C. Reilly) meets Holmes (Will Ferrell) while attempting suicide – and irritates the detective by crushing his prize vegetable marrow. The actual plot involves Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) threatening to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris), though the main villain – in a twist lifted from The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It – is his daughter, who is undercover in Baker St as a promiscuous Mrs Hudson (Kelly Macdonald). Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon) seethes at Holmes’ antics, which include showing up in court to demonstrate that the man in the dock isn’t Moriarty but a lookalike onanist (cue a string of synonyms for masturbation that get no laughs) and Hugh Laurie (a Holmesalike in House) shows up as a slim Mycroft. Steve Coogan, Laurel to Reilly’s Hardy in Stan and Ollie, has a bit as a one-armed tattooist – he got more laughs in a tiny parody (Sherlock Holmes in Miami) in the underrated fandom-themed comedy Cruise of the Gods. In The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and Without a Clue, Leo McKern and Paul Freeman give excellent readings of the role of Moriarty – Fiennes, who is as well-cast as they were, is stuck with feeble wanker gags, and glowers through a beard in as few scenes as possible. Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus, as an American feminist doctor and her raised-by-cats mute assistant, get lovely period costumes and occasionally manage to wrestle the terrible material close to actual humour.
The originally-announced casting for the project had Sacha Baron Cohen as Holmes and Ferrell as Watson – S.B. Cohen is apparently stuck with starring as Mandrake the Magician in the next E. Cohen joint – but a rethink reunites the stars of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Stepbrothers. Ferrell and Reilly are both talents, but get little to work on here. As in Sherlock Gnomes, a sub-plot has Watson feel underappreciated – he longs for a credit as ‘co-detective’ – and a feint raises the possibility of the good doctor being the villain of the piece. Probably the best way to parody Holmes is to cast an actor who could play the role seriously or at least strike the proper pose – Without a Clue fumbles a promising idea by not doing this – and S.B. Cohen could probably have pulled it off (undoubtedly, Steve Coogan or Hugh Laurie could too). Here, the script never decides whether Holmes is genuinely a genius or just a bumbling dolt. Ferrell just puts a posh British accent on his usual broad comic persona as vain, petty, overconfident, mean-spirited asshole – hey, it’s funny in Anchorman – while Reilly – who was lucky to be in two quality efforts (Ralph Breaks the Internet, Stan and Ollie) that season to take away the taint of Holmes & Watson – just stumbles along hoping for a punchline.
A real problem for the film is that it’s chiefly a parody of the Downey Jr-Ritchie films but comes along when the dominant image of Holmes in the media is Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller. A few laboured routines parody Downey Jr’s visualised-quick-thinking – typical is a sequence where animated diagrams and anatomical drawings envision how a drunken Holmes might relieve himself, only for him to skip the crucial opening-his-flies stage of the process and pee in his pants. Otherwise, the film does threadbare gags about anachronist modernisms (jokes about drunk-texts and selfies). The climax involves an attempt on the life of Queen Victoria in the ballroom of the Titanic on the night before its maiden voyage – by this point in the film, audiences have already been so insulted that they’ll probably shrug off the fact that Victoria died in 1901 and the Titanic was launched (and sank) in 1912. Given that this whole film seems to have been a sinking ship from the outset, it’s impressive that songwriter Alan Menken and composer Mark Mothersbaugh were persuaded to contribute.