Ten years after “Step Brothers” was gifted unto humanity — and at least five since the world rightfully came to recognize that film as the Dadaist masterpiece that it is — Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly have re-teamed for a comedy that’s somehow even dumber than the one that first galvanized their incredible chemistry. That should have been a good thing. It isn’t.
The trouble with “Holmes & Watson,” a witless Sherlock Holmes spoof that supplies fewer laughs in its entirety than “Step Brothers” does in its deleted scenes, is that the movie can never decide how dumb it wants to be. Or, more accurately, what kind of dumb it wants to be.
Re-imagining fiction’s greatest detective as the kind of world-class egoist that Ferrell could play in his sleep (he’s basically Ron Burgundy with a magnifying glass), this new spin on the public domain’s most popular character twists the legendary sleuth into a man who uses his forensic brilliance as a mask for his emotional ineptitude. While Sherlock can sniff out a killer from the faintest trace of vinegar on the lapel of their shirt, he’s clueless when it comes to human behavior; it only takes him a few minutes to catch the nefarious Professor Moriarty (an inexplicably under-used Ralph Fiennes, whose brief performance could have been cobbled together with footage from the many other movies in which he’s played a dastardly 19th century British man), but he might go the rest of his life without understanding how Dr. John Watson (Reilly) feels about playing second fiddle to his famous boss and best friend.
When Holmes deduces that the man he captured is a decoy, and that the real Moriarty is still on the loose, he’s forced to reconcile his intellect with his idiocy if he hopes to stop his arch-nemesis from killing the Queen of England.
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Written and directed by Etan Cohen, whose script for “Idiocracy” suggested a more acute understanding of how stupidity can be curdled into genius, “Holmes & Watson” shares its hero’s inability to be high-concept and low-brow at the same time. While the opening gag — a throwaway reference to “Hannah Montana” that feels like it was put on the screen about five drafts too soon — anticipates the kind of wanton silliness that audiences haven’t since the golden days of ZAZ, the movie seems afraid to embrace it.
The more ridiculous the joke, the faster Cohen tends to cut away from it; he doesn’t have a problem including a “Ghost” parody where Watson swoons for an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) while they lick vanilla frosting off of a fresh cadaver, but the scene is over before it even really begins. Maybe Cohen lacks the demented vision to understand what Reilly and Hall could do with that material, or maybe the studio got skittish and tried to force the film back to its central mystery at all costs (a central mystery so irrelevant that it’s eventually solved off-screen). Whatever the reason, “Holmes and Watson” constantly feels like it’s leaving an all-you-can-eat buffet on a full stomach.
Instead of picking a particular tone and wringing it for all it’s worth, Cohen just throws a mess of half-funny jokes at the wall in the hopes that some of them might stick. They don’t. Not enough of them, anyway. Mild gross-out humor (projectile vomit, cadavers baked into party cakes, etc.) is mashed together with poorly choreographed physical comedy (Holmes and Watson accidentally unleash a swarm of killer bees while trying to kill a single mosquito) and limp post-modern gags that poke fun at old technology (Watson telegrams someone a dick pic) or current events (a “Make England Great Again” hat precedes a conversation about how the Electoral College will always protect America from tyrannical grifters).
Some of this wacky business is amusing, but most of it distracts from Ferrell and Reilly’s extraordinary talent for character-driven comedy. In a movie that feels more disjointed than an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” all of best moments consistently return to the basic conceit of Holmes being an arrogant blowhard, and Watson trying to balance a sense of duty with a lack of self-worth. While Ferrell’s performance is a bit too familiar to land, Reilly is often hilarious as Holmes’ hype-man and unwitting guinea pig (an early courthouse scene, in which Watson obliviously murders a handful of innocent bystanders, hints at the no-holds-barred comedy this could have been).
Both of the title characters are provided with love interests, and the film is far more interested in them than it is in apprehending Moriarty. Hall, usually found in more serious fare, is delightful as a doctor with a penchant for electroshock therapy, while the great Lauren Lapkus manages to steal a few scenes (and Sherlock’s heart) as a woman who was raised by feral cats; a better movie would have done more with the world’s smartest man falling for someone who bites lollipops and hisses at strangers.
The cast is rounded out by an incredible array of actors and comedians, including Kelly Macdonald as Holmes’ secretary, Hugh Laurie as Holmes’ brother, Steve Coogan as a one-armed tattoo artist, Rob Brydon as a flabbergasted inspector, and someone who shows up for a last-minute cameo so good that it almost redeems the rest of the movie. Of course, none of these people are given anything to do — forget standing out, Laurie isn’t even on-screen long enough to stand up. Usually, you’d have to watch the Golden Globes to see this much wasted talent. As it stands, the only compelling mystery about “Holmes & Watson” is how so many funny people have been squeezed into such an unfunny movie, a movie that isn’t nearly smart enough to recognize how stupid it should have been.
“Holmes & Watson” is now playing in theaters.