Back in the 1990s, comedy actress Maureen Lipman appeared on the UK TV show Room 101 – a show named after the Orwellian concept, from 1984, of a room that contains a person’s worst fears or phobias (retconned in the show, effectively, to pet peeves). Lipman chose as one of her picks the film Carry on Columbus. It was pointed out to her that this was an odd choice, given she had starred in that film. She went on to explain that it was clear even during filming that the end product was going to be terrible; as all of the actors were turning up on set with new facial tics and moves that they had practiced for their roles. She said that this was always a facet of comedies where the script was terrible and the actors knew it: they would try to over-compensate with physicality, all the while trying to convince themselves that everything was fine.
It was hard not to be reminded of the story above when watching Holmes & Watson, the latest pairing of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Ferrell’s version of Sherlock Holmes has the busiest eyebrows to grace cinema in recent years: they are darting up and down furiously in every scene. There were a number of scenes in the film – an early set piece based around bees in particular – that were reminiscent of the scene in Step Brothers – starring the same two leads – where the two main characters were sleep walking destructively, leading to a lot of shouting and random noises. Shorn of the sleepwalking conceit, the equivalent scenes here really do look like two actors trying to drown out the deficiencies of a truly woeful script.
In this latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson (Reilly), Holmes is an established legend who, it appears, has defeated the evil Professor James Moriarty (a wasted Ralph Fiennes) once and for all. During a celebration at Buckingham Palace, a man is found dead. It seems Moriarty is back in play, and Holmes and Watson have merely days to prevent him from making good on his threat to murder Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Not that plot matters here at all.
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Holmes & Watson had no pre-release press screenings. It isn’t hard to see why. Nothing in this film works. Nothing. There are riffs on Weekend at Bernie’s that are simply not funny; extraordinarily lazy Trump jokes (a Make England Great Again hat – one of many hats Holmes wears through the film, in what appears to have been intended to be a running joke. Probably); a running joke with the housekeeper, Mrs Hudson (Kelly Macdonald) bringing multiple lovers to the house – every time this joke replays everyone on screen looks as embarrassed as audiences will feel, struggling through the overlong scenes that simply don’t work; and deliberately anachronistic jokes based on modern ideas, such as texting an object of desire while drunk (the sole joke in the film to raise a slight smile).
The Trump jokes, in particular, evoke, for all the wrong reasons, films such as Epic Movie, Date Movie, and their ilk. Those films seemed to operate under the illusion that it was enough simply to point at the existence of something for it to be funny; with no attempt at satire or deconstruction being necessary. So it goes with Holmes & Watson: the filmmakers are aware of the existence of Donald Trump and make it clear that these characters from the 1800s are aware of Donald Trump. No further comment or invention necessarily, clearly.
Will Ferrell can be a divisive figure. He is a loud, brash screen presence, with a shtick very reliant on playing up pomposity. At its best, it produces Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, truly one of the best comedies of the last 30 years. At its worst (or so we thought), it produces Get Hard or Semi-Pro: films that dialled up the noise, without having anything else to offer. It is hard to remember a time he mugged so hard for the camera than here, however; as the facial tics are truly off-putting. Reilly fares a little better, being somewhat better, in general, as a second lead anyhow. It must be remembered, though, that whilst there is no Anchorman on his CV, Reilly did produce Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a really funny riff on Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash biopic. It is sad to see performers capable of better racing through this as though in a fever.
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The score to the film is full of incongruous and annoying rap. This is accompanying a film that is simply too lazy or too blasé to avoid unnecessary anachronisms. We are in the 1880s, and the Titanic is launching (that trip in 1912 was its maiden voyage), and an elderly Albert Einstein is in this (servicing the Kelly Macdonald running ‘joke’ – so to speak). No one expects pinpoint accuracy from a knockabout comedy, but this is lazy; as it comes off as assuming the audience won’t know, or won’t care – meaning they think we are too stupid, or we’re not invested in the material. The scale of the waste of talent here is extraordinary: Rebecca Hall, Hugh Laurie, Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, and many others, all of whom have produced multiple instances of simply far better work.
Holmes & Watson finishes with a slight hint at a possible sequel. There is no way this will ever happen. In a career that has produced many missteps along with its highs, Will Ferrell has simply never produced anything this bad, this empty, this unfunny; and he has never been so transparently overworking in a role, both to cover the weaknesses in what is being offered, and to convince us that he is having fun. This is far worse that could have been expected, even when considering those weaker offerings from the last few years; and both Anchorman and Walk Hard now feel a very long time ago.
Holmes & Watson can be avoided in UK cinemas now.