You can feel the flop sweat emanating from the third onscreen pairing of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Making their previous vehicles Step Brothers and Talladega Nights seem the height of comic sophistication by comparison, Holmes & Watson features the duo parodying Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous characters to devastatingly unfunny effect. Numerous talented British thespians are wasted in supporting roles in this Christmas turkey that, not surprisingly, wasn’t screened in advance for critics. Although making them troop out to theaters Christmas morning is something of which even Ebenezer Scrooge wouldn’t have approved.
Written and directed by Etan Cohen (previously responsible for the similarly witless Ferrell comedy Get Hard), the film begins with a prologue featuring a schoolboy Holmes being bullied by his boarding school classmates. The humiliation drives young Sherlock to suppress his emotions in favor of cold, calculating logic, which, as origin stories go, won’t cause Spider-Man to lose any sleep.
Cut to the grown Holmes and Watson attempting to thwart their nemesis Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, mainly letting his beard do the acting) and solving crimes. When a dead body is found inside a giant birthday cake at Buckingham Palace, the duo is charged by Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) with the task of investigating the case. Assisting them in their efforts are the American Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her mute assistant Millicent (a very funny Lauren Lapkus, practically stealing the film), who was “raised by cats.” The two women become love interests for the bachelor duo, with Watson and Grace bonding while performing an autopsy to the strains of “Unchained Melody” and Holmes becoming enchanted by the daffy Millicent.
There’s at least one scene that proves mildly amusing, when Holmes silently communicates with his brother Mycroft (Hugh Laurie, who had the good sense to go uncredited) via their shared ability to “brainspeak.” It’s a slyly witty moment that contrasts with the otherwise lame slapstick permeating the frenetic proceedings. A gag involving the eating of raw onions isn’t so much running as limping. And there’s a strange amount of anachronistic Donald Trump-related humor, including bits about fake news and red MAGA hats (here reading “Make England Great Again”) that fall utterly flat in this context.
But those are certainly preferable to the laborious scene in which Holmes and Watson desperately try to hide the body of the apparently dead queen, or the Disney-style musical number performed by Ferrell and Reilly that at least sounds authentic thanks to having been composed by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. A subplot involving the Titanic seems mainly designed to showcase a cameo by one of the stars of James Cameron’s film about the doomed ship, which presumably played funnier in the writers’ room than it does onscreen.
Ferrell and Reilly flounder in their titular roles, and when Steve Coogan makes a brief appearance, it only serves to remind you of the sublime work he and Reilly do in the upcoming Stan & Ollie. Kelly Macdonald gamely attempts to score laughs as an atypically young and saucy landlady Mrs. Hudson, while Rob Brydon (Coogan’s foil in the Trip movies) barely makes an impression as the harried Inspector Lestrade.
Despite being filmed entirely in England and at numerous historical locations, Holmes & Watson boasts such ersatz-looking visuals that it may as well been shot entirely on soundstages. The overall shoddiness is typical of this feeble sendup that doesn’t even manage to be as funny as the recent Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. versions.
Production: Mimran Schur Pictures, Gary Sanchez Productions, Mosaic
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rebecca Hall, Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald, Ralph Fiennes, Lauren Lapkus
Director-screenwriter: Etan Cohen
Producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jimmy Miller, Clayton Townsend
Executive producers: Chris Henchy, Jessica Elbaum, M. Riley, Davide Mimram, Jordan Schur
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: James Hambidge
Editors: Dean Zimmerman, J. Erik Jessen
Costume designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting: Lucinda Syson
Rated PG-13, 89 minutes