Clueless My World of Flops Case File # 128/My Year of Flops II # 25: Holmes & Watson (2018)
A few months back, the powerhouse duo of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, the big guns behind Funny or Die, the Gary Sanchez production company and beloved cult classics like Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys split ways professionally, essentially dissolving their longstanding and enormously fruitful partnership.
Devastated comedy fans rent their garments and screamed out to the heavens, “Why? Why hath the Lord, in His infinite wisdom, driven this pair asunder?” Then they looked at Ferrell and McKay’s recent output. In 2018 McKay released another Oscar-nominated political manifesto, in this case the Dick Cheney biopic Vice, a follow-up to his multi-Oscar nominated 2016 docudrama exploration of the financial crisis, The Big Short. And Ferrell released Holmes & Watson, a more or less universally loathed Golden Raspberry contender in six categories and a winner in four, including Worst Picture.
The two men seem to be veering off in sharply divergent directions. McKay has become a Serious maker of Quality Films while Ferrell’s recent output feels like it should go straight to undiscriminating man-caves. I’m talking movies like Daddy’s Home, its Mel Gibson-augmented sequel, the gay panic-plus-racism prison sodomy comedy Get Hard, Zoolander 2 and Holmes & Watson, a grade A stinkeroo, only a mother, or a Tim and Gregg of On Cinema could love.
True, McKay is credited as a producer on Holmes & Watson, but it’s easy to imagine the Saturday Night Live veteran sitting down at his laptop and watching a rough cut of Holmes & Watson for the first time and suddenly deciding that he needs to make a whole lot of changes in his life and career, beginning with distancing himself professionally from the buffoon onscreen desperately trying to make masturbation, vomit and shit jokes work through sheer determination.
Ferrell and John C. Reilly starred in two of the best loved comedies of the past twenty years in Step Brothers and Talladega Nights but Holmes & Watson established itself as a leaden misfire to be dreaded rather than anticipated despite the extraordinary talent involved with a singularly dire poster featuring the previously beloved duo making an H and a W with their hands in a manner suggesting those Afro-American gangs you see today with the rapping and the breakdancing and the beat-boxing rather than famous literary detectives from the 1890s.
This cursed image all too accurately captures the glib essence of the film’s most painful gags, which inquire impishly, “Isn’t it CRAZY that this movie takes place WAY back in the past but now it’s totally the present?” to which the only reasonable response is, “No” followed by an even bigger no.
Yet Holmes & Watson can’t help but giggle uproariously at the anachronistic audacity of having a deeply inebriated Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and John Watson (John C. Riley) try to transmit the first dick pick—via telegraph or take an old-timey “selfie.” The dreadful time-warp gags begin immediately, and ominously, with the words “Logic is the sword by which we slay ancient superstitions. But lo, the heart has has its own truths to teach us” being credited not to Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle or a poet or philosopher but rather the fourth episode of the second season of Hannah Montana.
It’s a gag that lands with a thud. And a groan. And an “ugh” accompanied by angry eye rolling. Starting off yet another goof on the time-tested mythology of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick with a reference to Hanna Montana takes us out of the terrible movie we’re watching and ushers us into an even worse comedy full of lazy pop culture references from the past three decades and insultingly clunky references to modern-day politics, pop culture and millennial culture.
The Hannah Montana reference is, like the rest of the film, shockingly, insultingly unfunny. But it’s also lazy and cheap and more than anything, perversely dated. It’s been eight years since Hannah Montana went off the air so that its star could embrace her true essence as a debauched pop art hellion. Yet Holmes & Watson doesn’t just feature a Hannah Montana joke; it opens with one.
I came into Holmes & Watson with very low expectations. They sunk even lower after that first cringe-inducing gag. Opening with a reference to Miley Cyrus’ old show is minty-fresh and almost alarmingly current compared to a later set-piece parodying the once iconic but now nearly forgotten scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore transform the act of making pottery into an explosively sensual endeavor. Here’s a good rule of thumb for comedy filmmakers: if your reference is older than most of the target audience for your film, maybe substitute something a little more recent.
As part of its unfortunate commitment to punishingly unfunny gags rooted in waggish anachronism, Will Ferrell is introduced trying on different hats for a court appearance, including a pimp hat, the kind of hat a stripper cowboy might wear and a red fez with the words “Make England Great Again” on it.
Gags like that aren’t just unfunny. They’re exhausting. They’re depleting. Individually and collectively, they take a toll on your patience. They don’t tickle the funny bone so much as they poke at it erratically from weird angles, inflicting pain rather than pleasure. But just as Holmes & Watson somehow manages to throw in an entire set-piece more distractingly dated than the reference to a long-ago period in Miley Cyrus’ personal and creative development, it follows up the “Make England Great Again” zinger with an even more groaningly clumsy Donald Trump reference.
Later in the film, Holmes and Watson banter about the differences between civilized England and the United States with their respective love interests, a seemingly slow-witted, pre-verbal woman with the mind of a four year old played by Lauren Lapkus and Dr. Grace Hart, a pioneering doctor played by Rebecca Hall. When I saw Lapkus’ name in the credits, I thought, “Wow, good for her.” That sentiment morphed quickly, almost instantly, into “Ooh, she’s Ferrell’s love interest in this. That poor woman. She deserves so much better.”
Everyone in Holmes & Watson deserves better. Its cast is made up entirely of people way too fucking talented and accomplished to waste their time with this juvenile nonsense, including Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (separately, of course, in keeping with the movie’s commitment to getting, and doing, everything wrong), Hugh Laurie as Mycroft Holmes, Kelly MacDonald and most egregious, Ralph Fiennes as Holmes’ arch-enemy Moriarty.
In words lousy with historical irony and just plain lousy, Dr. Grace observes that, “in America we have democracy. Our president is a person our people have all chosen, an assurance that only the finest and most qualified man will lead, not a wealthy tyrant who cares for nothing but himself.”
In case there’s any doubt as to who she’s talking about Watson then observes, “But you have the electoral college, which surely would prevent some TRUMPed-up charlatan from gaining power.”
But it does not stop there. It should! Oh dear lord, should it stop there. Instead, Holmes observes that it would be great to have a “strong businessman” while Watson opines that a “showman” would make for a terrific leader as well.
If the scene had closed with the actors facing the camera directly and saying, “We’re actually talking about President Trump. #Resist” it would not come off as any clumsier or more ham-fisted. Sorry, Trump-hating Hollyweirdoes. Republicans have a thriving economy, Chachi, James Woods and the stupidest Baldwin brother going for them. It’s going to take more labored anachronistic jokes in reviled Will Ferrell vehicles to put a Democrat in the White House in 2020. Not much more, but a little more.
Holmes is introduced as a precocious child who carries around his beloved pet turtle in a way that silently but hauntingly asks, “Am I not turtley enough for the Turtle Club?” and then more insistently but nonsensically, “Turtle, turtle, turtle!” Young Sherlock just wants to be accepted and have friends but his naiveté and gullibility lead to him accidentally being tricked into kissing a donkey’s behind thinking it’s a girl she has a crush on. This formative trauma, which is depressingly redolent of the inciting incident in The Grinch, a film of similar quality and integrity, leads to Sherlock becoming a robotic creature of the intellect, an unthinking machine of a man whose detachment from human emotions renders him more effective as a crime-solving dynamo, the smartest detective in the world.
Everyone knows that Sherlock Holmes is a cold, hyper-rational, detached analytical cyborg of a master crime solver. What Holmes & Watson presupposes is: maybe he isn’t? What if he’s typical Will Ferrell emotionally stunted, arrogant man-child with a mental age in the single digits, but also, you know, the world’s smartest man when the movie needs him to be?
Holmes & Watson finds the titular duo investigating a threat to Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) from Sherlock’s arch-nemesis Moriarty (Fiennes) while romancing a pair of beautiful Americans and breaking up briefly when Holmes becomes convinced that Watson is a criminal.
All of the actors are under-used or badly used to a criminal extent, none more egregiously than Fiennes or Lapkus. Lapkus is an undisputed master of podcasting, a purely audio form. She is a goddamn genius at talking into a microphone, a radically contemporary and original presence. So what does Holmes & Watson do? It casts her in a more or less non-verbal role and puts her in Victorian garb. As for Fiennes, the most the screenplay by director Etan Cohen, who in his more dignified days co-wrote Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder, can come up with for him is to have Holmes and Watson discuss his character’s frenzied addiction to masturbation, quipping that he is a “saucier” of sorts “and the name of his restaurant is The Crotch Kitchen.”
That’s what you’re going to want to do with the guy from Schindler’s List and The Grand Budapest Hotel when you’re lucky enough to have him in your dreadful movie: make him the subject of a minute or so of masturbation double and single entendres and that’s about it.
I will say this about Holmes & Watson. For some reason, I really thought that it would end with Ferrell and Reilly performing an end credit rap song in character as Sherlock Holmes and Watson that summarized the plot of the film in the manner of John Leguizamo’s opening rap in The Pest.
I was bracing myself for that possibility. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe I thought it would be the inevitable end game of Ferrell and Reilly’s “street” posturing on that dreadful poster but I’m both pleased and a little disappointed to report that neither Ferrell nor Reilly bust raps at any point in Holmes & Watson. But it would be entirely in keeping with the film’s fierce commitment to always making the stupidest, worst, most juvenile choice to end with a novelty rap that things back to the REAL Old School.
So you’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers: they do everything screamingly, yet non-entertainingly wrong except close with a novelty rap number. Yes, Reilly and Ferrell have made us all laugh and brought us a lot of joy and laughter over the years, individually and collectively. That comes to a screaming halt with Holmes & Watson. It’s their Righteous Kill, a movie so much worse than the beloved collaborations that came before It that it’s hard to believe they belong in the same medium, let alone are the work of the same talented people.
So if you love Step Brothers and Talladega Nights do yourself a favor and pretend that Holmes & Watson does not exist. Don’t let curiosity and nostalgia lead you to a mistake for all involved that squanders much of the tremendous goodwill these two towering, talented goofballs earned in the pre-Holmes & Watson phase of their career.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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