The Adventure of the Blanched Filmgoer
Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen's Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)
Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that's the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping off the roof overlooking Holmes' vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes' marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes' detective activities as a result.
Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded 'You know what, that actually sounds quite funny' – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she's a cat (Lauren Lapkus).
There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.
The film's signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red 'Make England Great Again' fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he's attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.
One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly that it thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn't bite on this occasion.
I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don't mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don't know. I don't know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?
The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.