It’s easy to see why Holmes & Watson must have looked like a great idea on paper. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly had great natural chemistry as a comedy duo in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. Why not cast them as funny versions of a done-to-death fictional duo people have seen dozens of movies about? Even though neither of them are British, the Sherlock Holmes franchise seems like a natural fit given that Ferrell excels at playing egomaniacal blowhards and Reilly is a master of innately sympathetic second bananas going all the way back to Boogie Nights. You can imagine a funny movie with Ferrell as Sherlock and Reilly as Dr. Watson, but you’ll have to keep imagining it because this movie sucks.
I can’t say for sure that Holmes & Watson is the worst movie or even the worst comedy that either Ferrell or Reilly have done, but it’s definitely the worst thing they’ve done together. It’s a waste of talent that doesn’t so much misuse both of their gifts as it willingly throws them away in favor of gags that alternately feel suited to completely different comics or nobody in particular. About half of the scenes and ideas feel made up on the spot, and those are the ones that are almost serviceable! The stranger, more elaborately thought-out content feels like it was intended for a Tim & Eric show but Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s unique gift for abstract anticomedy could possibly make a third of this material work.
The end result doesn’t even have much satirical insight into either the literary tradition of the endlessly adapted Arthur Conan Doyle stories or the general pop-culture presence of the characters. That’s bizarre considering the characters have had such a big resurgence over the last decade or so between House, the Robert Downey Jr. movies, Sherlock, Elementary and now Miss Sherlock on HBO Asia, where the cross-linguistic pun of naming the Japanese Sherlock’s partner Dr. Wato Tachibana – “Doctor Wato-san” – is funnier than anything in this film. You’d think with all these different reworkings already out there Holmes & Watson would have more to work from than retreading familiar territory about awkwardly unequal partnerships and men not being able to express platonic affection.
Not only does the film not have anywhere to go but there with its central dynamic, it can’t even be bothered to deliver much comedic or even character depth. Half the time it feels like both actors would like to drop the accents and cut to the chase of every character beat by turning to the audience and saying “Remember that one part from one of our good movies? This is that, but for THIS setting — got it?” Then they could skip to whatever the punchline is supposed to be.
For what it’s worth, the big idea for this incarnation of Holmes is that he attained his superior intellect by forcing himself to not have emotions. That’s left him totally clueless about the emotional abuse he’s been inflicting by neglecting Dr. Watson, who just wants Sherlock to view him as a near-equal and acknowledge his efforts as sidekick and hype man. This dynamic becomes further strained as they attempt to thwart a threatened assassination of the Queen by Ralph Fiennes’ Dr. Moriarty. They’re assisted by a pair of American doctors played by Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus who serve as would-be love interests and foils. The women are the subject of about 20 jokes too many centering around characters acting like anachronistic Victorian views and scientific ideas are actually very advanced and progressive.
Frustratingly, there is the germ of an idea for a decent Sherlock Holmes spoof buried in the outline of the main narrative, with Ferrell’s overly cocksure Holmes so convinced of his own brilliance that he cheerfully overlooks obvious suspects for being too obvious and dismisses mundane but perfectly sensible solutions. It’s the only funny recurring bit in the movie, and it builds to a final reveal that feels like it was meant to dovetail with the B-story about Sherlock’s ignorance of human emotions for an “Are you kidding, literally any idiot would’ve solved this based on THAT piece of information alone!” payoff. But then it doesn’t, possibly because writer Etan Cohen recognized the joke wasn’t really working and cut the beats where it was supposed to actually play out.
Instead, we’re left with great comedians doing material that’s beneath them interspersed with painful jokes about old-timey versions of selfie sticks and drunk dialing, Holmes inventing pro wrestling pay-per-view, and riffs about how American elections could never ever accidentally put a wealthy tyrant in charge of the whole country like Britain. The movie is enlivened only sporadically by moments of off-kilter weirdness like Lapkus’ character apparently having been raised by cats.
Digging too far into the esoteric problems with Holmes & Watson obscures the more pressing matter that it’s simply just not a well made film. It’s clearly been hacked to pieces in editing to get it into semi-releasable shape. The studio attempted to pass it off to Netflix who turned it down, which is why your great aunt dozed off watching Bird Box after Christmas dinner instead of this. The jokes don’t land, the characterizations don’t fit, and the cinematography and direction are bland and ugly to look at. It’s embarrassing watching people like Steve Coogan and Hugh Laurie show up for phoned-in cameos with nothing to actually do. It’s an utterly unpleasant, nearly unwatchable mess of a thing that only manages to escape being the worst thing in most multiplexes at the moment by virtue of some theaters still having Welcome to Marwen booked into a couple houses.