Etan Cohen didn’t write Holmes & Watson as a vehicle for Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Indeed, at one point Ferrell was going to play Dr. Watson, with Sacha Baron Cohen (no relation) as Sherlock. It’s hard to tell how much the script changed when Ferrell and Reilly got onboard as the detective and his sidekick (Cohen is still the only credited writer), but you get the sense that some of the stars’ semi-improvised on-set clownery made it into the final cut — a desperate attempt by two seasoned pros to turn a lukewarm screenplay into something hot.
It didn’t work, but at least they tried. Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen, half of the Coen brothers), who directed Ferrell in the similarly half-arsed Get Hard, is making his first outing as sole writer-director, and his story of Holmes and Watson trying to stop a plot to kill Queen Victoria in the 1890s is insufficiently funny or clever (or cleverly stupid). As a Will Ferrell superfan, I’m the exact target audience for this, and it only barely worked for me.
The stars are certainly in their element, with a dynamic similar to their first outing together, Talladega Nights. Ferrell’s Sherlock Holmes is an arrogant blowhard who dismisses the contributions of others; Reilly’s Dr. Watson is Holmes’ biggest fan and doormat. They get to do silly things like overreact to a swarm of bees (Watson fires a gun at them) and take turns screaming the housekeeper’s name when they need her. Their boyish glee when (for example) a drunken Holmes encourages a drunken Watson to send a lady a late-night telegram (“Are you awake? Stop.”) is infectious.
But the well that Cohen’s script goes back to the most often is the Jokes About How Primitive the 1800s Are Compared to Now well. Dr. Watson’s state-of-the-art “modern medicine” involves regular prescriptions of heroin and opium; the gymnasium has a “lung exercise station” where people smoke cigarettes to improve their health; and so on. Running along the same lines are the jokes where an 1890s practice predicts the future: the aforementioned booty call; a “self-photograph” with a giant box camera; the spin class at the gym with everybody on stationary penny-farthings; the invention of pay-per-view when Holmes and Watson charge spectators to watch a boxing match, and the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” guy shows up to say “Let’s get ready to scuffle!” You get the idea.
All of this is fitfully amusing, but not enough for Cohen to build the whole movie around it. The story is a mess. Convinced that his nemesis Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t behind the plot to kill fusty Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) — for whom Watson has the hots, by the way — Holmes tries to determine who is, while in the background his failure to appreciate Watson’s assistance percolates. There are two American women involved, Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her mute assistant Millie (Lauren Lapkus), who thinks she’s a cat for some reason. Holmes falls for the cat girl, Watson for the doctor (they have a very hard time believing a lady could be a doctor, of course), but the only real impact this subplot has on the film is forcing main action to pause now and then for a courtship scene.
Everyone’s careers will survive, and clips of the funny parts will probably make their way onto the internet. I will fondly remember Ferrell’s haughty, pursed-lipped Holmes and his not-quite-passable English accent, even if the the film in which he appeared was strained and erratic.