My guilty pleasure is the type of comedy you can turn your brain off to and just enjoy without having to think. Will Ferrell has a fair amount in his filmography I can point to that aren’t great, maybe even not technically good, but pleasant enough to sit back and chuckle to some of the jokes and enjoy the banter between himself and his co-stars. I’m thinking of movies like Blades of Glory, knowingly-stupid flicks that are formulaic as all hell, but have a certain joy to them.
Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, his previous outings with John C. Reilly as his sidekick, are genuinely fun and funny, but as it turns out, these outings require a director more sure of themselves, and a script that allows the stars to riff off of the material. Holmes & Watson, their most recent outing, is a painfully unfunny movie that is so unfunny it made me wonder, was being unfunny the point? Was it some statement of anti-comedy that went over my head?
The story begins with Sherlock Holmes as a young child being humiliated by his classmates after being tricked into kissing a donkey on the ass. In that moment, he rejects emotions and focuses his attention on knowledge, hell-bent on revenge for the children that wronged him, getting them all expelled. With all the children gone, the teachers now have only him as a student and focus their energies on him only, so that he can learn everything about everything and become the genius that is Sherlock Holmes. Except, throughout the film, Sherlock Holmes is about as smart as Harold or Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber and emotes frequently. The movie sets up something and can’t even be bothered to try to stick to any sort of a landing. Instead, it immediately nosedives and we’re forced to watch a flaming wreck that the filmmakers insist was intentional.
As mindless entertainment and escapism it fails, because it reminds the viewer, at every turn, that Donald Trump is president and that America is gun-crazy. In a recurring “joke”, Sherlock Holmes (Ferrell) can’t decide on a hat to wear to complete his look, at one point wearing a red fez with the slogan, “Make England Great Again.” Later, he and Watson (Reilly) think it would be really great to have a greedy businessman elected to the highest power of the nation. Ha. Ha. Ha. Two women, a doctor and her assistant (played by Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus), proclaim their proud American heritage by firing guns into the air. Holmes & Watson is the film equivalent of having a drunk relative trying to talk politics at the dinner table on Christmas.
As a comedic vehicle to showcase the talents of its two leads it also fails, because Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are constantly running an already-tired gag into the ground so thoroughly that it becomes a fine, depressing powder. Lauren Lapkus is saddled with the unfortunate role of a woman who thinks she’s a cat and she and Will Ferrell eat a whole onion together in a scene that lasts far, far, far too long. These are talented people who are trying their best to take something like, “Woman who thinks she’s a cat eats whole onion,” and make it work.
As a statement of anti-comedy, some sort of experiment in the nature of comedy, it fails, too, because it doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t have any depth beyond its long, dull gags. Apparently, everyone involved thought they were making something good. Making jokes about how a woman could never possibly be a doctor could be used as a statement on sexism. Instead, Holmes & Watson thinks that’s funny enough on its own, because sexism is funny by itself, I guess. And when a woman is busy having sex, the punchline is that she’s a woman with loose morals and the sex smells bad.
Even as an update to the Sherlock Holmes legend fails because at no point is it ever clear that Holmes and Watson are particularly adept at… anything. How they attained any sort of fame for solving crimes should be the mystery at the center of the film. Even Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby were apparently good at what they did. At several points in Holmes & Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ perspective slows time and complex mathematical formulas will accomplish a task at hand. It never once succeeds. Is the joke that Sherlock Holmes is terrible at his job and is in fact not a genius? This is never elaborated on.
This is a movie that plays like a direct-to-VHS comedy from the 1990s with a budget, but somehow worse. At least something in the Air Bud franchise has cute animals and tries to be entertaining enough to keep young children occupied for 90 minutes. Holmes & Watson is, for all its faults, is somehow even worse than anything I’ve lobbed at it thus far: It’s boring. It’s dull. It’s a slog that never wants to end.
Holmes & Watson is an ugly, cynical movie devoid of laughs, devoid of charm and devoid of thought. It’s one of the worst movies of the year by a long shot. It might be the worst film of either Will Ferrell’s or John C. Reilly’s careers.