Take much-loved characters — you’ll not do much better than Sherlock Holmes in that regard. Add some outstanding acting talent — comedy gems like Hugh Laurie, Steve Coogan or Rob Brydon, heavyweights like Ralph Fiennes, all-rounders like Kelly MacDonald. Put them together and you really should have something rather special. Then add Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and what you end up with is Holmes & Watson, a whole that is very, very much less than the sum of its parts.
Ferrell plays what he perhaps imagines is a camp, archly witty version of Holmes, but his accent, which presumably he imagined he could make sound English simply by lengthening the odd vowel and turning his Rs into Ws occasionally, was not the worst part of his performance. Reilly, who I have a soft spot for since seeing him sing Mister Cellophane in Chicago sixteen years ago but for, as far as I can tell, no other discernible reason, manages a slightly better stab at sounding English, but the two of them really have no business making films on the strength of this showing.
That the script — Arthur Conan Doyle gets a credit, because the characters in this film share names, but no other recognisable characteristics — and direction are by Etan Cohen says a lot: just like Cohen’s name, the film looks very much like it should be something so very much better, but isn’t. So instead of something bitingly funny, intelligently entertaining and sharp, we have a film that could, should, might have been outstanding but instead is nothing of the sort. Ferrell has, in the past, demonstrated some serious comic-acting talent, but usually in films that have strong, highly-quotable screenplays, and Holmes & Watson is a far cry from Anchorman or Talladega Nights. Reilly has, occasionally, shown some talent as a comic actor, but a quick trip through his filmography shows little of note, or even anything to be proud of, in some years — Walk Hard, his last half-way decent comedy, is over ten years old.
Farrell and Reilly are, of course, the focus of this film, and they have so little comic chemistry, so little sense of comic timing, that one wonders how such woeful miscasting could have happened. Cohen’s script, largely devoid as it is of anything resembling humour, comedy or actual gags, falls flatter than the proverbial steamrollered pancake as Reilly and Ferrell fail, woefully and dismally, to spark off each other. So bad is their timing that one could almost imagine that they had recorded their lines in separate studios on separate days; mind you, the editing is so bad, the syncing of lips to voices, that this could quite possibly have been the case.
There is a story, of sorts, but not one that Sir Arthur would have had any time for. Moriarty, played by Ralph Fiennes, who clearly has made some very, very bad business decisions lately and needs the money much more desperately than we had realised, is somehow involved in an absurd plot to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris, once capable of better). Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall, her American accent better than either of the male leads’ English attempts) and Millie (Lauren Lapkus, clearly missing her role in OITNB), recently arrived from America for no apparent reason, become involved, as Holmes and Watson try to question a one-armed tattooist played by Steve Coogan, clearly treading water until Alan Partridge is brought once again out of life-support. Meanwhile. Rob Brydon blots his copybook as Lestrade.
And so the whole thing grinds on. Jokes, from slapstick to Sherlock pastiche to gross-out, fail to hit their marks; part of the problem is that the film can’t decided which of these tones, or any of the others it briefly essays, to settle on, and nothing about it feels full-formed or well-thought-out, or decently executed. Someone clearly had the idea, probably pharmaceutically-inspired, to make a comedy Holmes film, despite the fact that Sherlock has more wit in any single episode than this film could even aspire to. Someone had the idea that Ferrell and Reilly could be funny together, despite the pairing being less comedic than combining chlamydia with leprosy.
Don’t go and see this film. It’s not making money. It deserves not too. Everyone of actual acting ability in the film — Brydon, MacDonald, Coogan, Fiennes, Lapkus, Laurie, what should have been a critical mass of outrageous talent — really needs to sit down and have a very long think about what they’ve done. They should all be very, very ashamed of themselves.