PLOT The famous sleuthing team must save the queen from assassination.
CAST Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rebecca Hall
RATED PG-13 (crass humor and sexual talk)
BOTTOM LINE So agonizingly unfunny that you’ll reach for the morphine.
Sherlock Holmes? I’m pretty sure he’s been done. In the movies, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth has been played every which way — classic detective-hero, vulnerable addict, wistful retiree, spunky kid. He’s been tweaked by Gene Wilder in “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” meta-fictionalized in “Without a Clue,” and transformed by Robert Downey Jr. into Ironic Man in two recent box-office hits, both directed by Guy Ritchie.
What, at this late date, could be less fresh, less timely, less promising than a Sherlock Holmes comedy?
Nevertheless, here comes “Holmes & Watson,” starring Will Ferrell as the brilliant detective and John C. Reilly as his chronicler, John Watson. It’s an unexpected low point from two great actors who were pure gold in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” and at least silver in “Step Brothers.” In “Holmes & Watson,” however, the two seem to have no script or even a premise to work with, and the ideas they throw into the void are either desperately crass or simply incoherent. “Holmes & Watson” is one of those movies that goes beyond unfunny and into a comedy-cubist zone, where jokes are no longer recognizable and laughter is philosophically impossible.
The problem isn’t the bare-bones plot in which someone has sworn to kill the Queen, but the film’s utter confusion about its lead characters. Ferrell’s Holmes is an emotionless logician but also a bumbler and so squeamish that he barfs at the sight of blood. Watson, meanwhile, is modeled on Reilly’s Cal Naughton Jr. character in “Talladega Nights” — the loyal second banana — but he is also, inexplicably, a gun nut with a violent streak. Rebecca Hall plays Grace Hart, a rare female doctor who shocks our patriarchal heroes (shades of “Anchorman”); Lauren Lapkus, stuck in a truly awful role, plays Millie, a woman who was raised by feral cats and behaves like one. Ralph Fiennes, as Professor Moriarty, may be thankful his role has been reduced to mere seconds.
Written and directed by Etan Cohen (Ferrell’s second-rate effort “Get Hard”), “Holmes & Watson” seems to be made up entirely of — to phrase it politely — brain-burps. The only bright spot is a brief musical number that takes place just before Watson's hanging for crimes he didn't commit. It's a reminder of what Ferrell and Reilly can do when they’re firing on all cylinders.
It's elementary . . .
In “Holmes & Watson,” Will Ferrell follows some mighty tough acts as Sherlock Holmes. Here are four others who memorably played the part.
BASIL RATHBONE A thespian of the British stage, Rathbone played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946, defining the character as we know him today: a brilliant but emotionally detached sleuth.
NICOL WILLIAMSON Though not the most famous name, he played one of the best-reviewed Holmeses in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976), which features an interesting Freudian twist. (Alan Arkin plays Sigmund Freud). Robert Duvall co-stars as Watson.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. With Guy Ritchie directing and Jude Law as Watson, Downey made two “Holmes” movies, putting his cheeky Iron Man spin on the role. The results: Mixed.
IAN MCKELLEN In “Mr. Holmes,” Bill Condon’s overlooked 2015 drama, McKellen plays the sleuth in late life, coming out of retirement to solve a case that has haunted him. Good reviews, though a glut of TV mystery shows may have dampened its box office. — RAFER GUZMAN