"Holmes & Watson" Revels In Nonsense

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly reunite to put an anachronistic, violently stupid spin on nineteenth century author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s flagship characters. “Holmes & Watson” is that simple, mostly making good on the admittedly limited potential of its set up, ready-made for low expectations. While it doesn’t touch the berserk brilliance of the actors’ second collaboration, “Step Brothers” (a movie only fully appreciated on repeat viewings), it is very dumb and occasionally very funny – enough to remind us how perfectly matched its stars are.

Announced in 2008 as a vehicle for Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen (Cohen was set to star as Holmes, the role Ferrell would eventually play) and shot almost two years ago, the finished film tested so poorly that Sony tried to pawn it off on Netflix. (Netflix declined, presumably to avoid adding to their reputation as a dumping ground.) Indeed, “Holmes & Watson” does feel a bit quaint, its preposterously broad comedy clearly from a time when “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers” director Adam McKay was making comedies instead of self-important docudramas.

“Holmes” is written and directed by Etan Cohen, the man responsible for the terrible 2015 Ferrell vehicle “Get Hard.” But Cohen’s apparently grown since then, now steering clear of lazy jokes fixed on homophobia and racism. Some of the jokes here are just as lazy, but they’re entirely at the expense of the lurching incompetence of Ferrell’s wildly affected Sherlock Holmes.

In a sharper movie, Reilly’s Watson would be the voice of reason – the straight man to Ferrell’s idiot. Here he’s almost as juvenile as Holmes, but the lack of a traditional double act does occasionally add to the comedy.

Cohen’s narrative doubles as one of the pic’s biggest running gags. By all accounts the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) has been apprehended, but Holmes implores a judge that the man is not Moriarty but a lookalike. In defiance of all logic – and to the chagrin of local Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon) – the criminal is acquitted. Once again, the bodies begin to pile up.

At the behest of Queen Victoria (Pam Harris), whose life is threatened by Moriarty via a note attached to a corpse inside a birthday cake, Holmes and Watson pursue the madman. Joined by Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her feral right-hand Millie (Lauren Lapkus, in a hilariously go-for-broke performance), our heroes find themselves hot on the trail of their arch nemesis. Gags about aphrodisiacal autopsies, drunk telegrams, and the origins of the term selfie ensue, perhaps inevitably.

There is nothing exactly clever about any of this, but Ferrell and Reilly sell it as if their lives depend on it. And their enthusiasm for an inordinately senseless screenplay is nothing if not infectious.

Ferrell’s wide-eyed Holmes, whether in the midst of one of his trademark deductions or belittling his sidekick, is amusing throughout (provided you enjoy the actor’s penchant for riding jokes to the bitter end). And Reilly’s unconventional take on a well-worn character makes for an occasionally sweet story of enduring friendship. (A surprising musical number penned by Disney legend Alan Menken serves as the film’s climax – predictably lunkheaded but hinting at the core of Holmes and Watson’s relationship.)

If any of this sounds like it might be for you, it probably is. Arrive with expectations low and brain activity even lower, and you’ll laugh (or at least chuckle) through most of its 90 minutes.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 25, 2018
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Etan Cohen
Screenwriter: Etan Cohen
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rebecca Hall, Lauren Lapkus, Ralph Fiennes, Kelly Macdonald, Rob Brydon, Pam Harris
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual material, some violence, language and drug references)