Judging by the conspicuous lack of fanfare awaiting “Step Brothers” co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s third feature pairing, the fact that critics weren’t invited, and the faint odor of horse manure emanating from the theater on Christmas morning, one doesn’t need to be a master detective to deduce that “Holmes & Watson” is a dud — not that the packed house for a 9 a.m. opening-day show seemed to mind.
As far as Ferrell and Reilly are concerned, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s unstumpable sleuth and the thankless sidekick who recorded his every exploit are not just a great crime-solving duo but one of the great bromances of English literature — and therefore a natural target for the two actors’ ongoing exploration of dysfunctional friendships. The trouble is, Sherlock Holmes exists so large in audiences’ minds already that the pair’s uninspired take feels neither definitive nor especially fresh — just an off-brand, garden-variety parody.
Is it funny, for instance, to spend an entire movie watching Ferrell’s Holmes try on various hats, knowing that eventually Reilly, as Watson, is bound to steer him toward his trademark deerstalker? And what’s the point in teasing the elaborate mental calculations needed to disable a boxing adversary when that particular device was treated with tongue in cheek nine short years ago, when Guy Ritchie concocted it for his own “Sherlock Holmes” reboot? At least in that case, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson felt risky, whereas in writer-director Etan Cohen’s version, the joke begins and ends with the concept of Ferrell and Reilly as these two characters.
The film’s most inspired scene occurs before either actor appears, opening with an origin-story flashback to Holmes’ boarding school past: It’s elementary where he meets his dear Watson. This is also where Sherlock learns to suppress his emotions after being humiliated by a gang of cruel classmates, literally forcing the tears back up his cheeks.
How many of the world’s great minds were motivated by bullies? It would have been smart to explore what makes Holmes tick (in the books, he’s so often portrayed as a one-dimensional savant), but that’s as far as the movie takes the idea. Instead of further investigating Holmes’ gift for logic as an especially extreme case of over-compensation, the script settles for feel-good buddy-movie treacle, suggesting that shutting down his feelings as a child later causes him to take his closest friend for granted (allowing Reilly to play a version of the same slighted-bestie dynamic in the Laurel and Hardy biopic “Stan & Ollie”).
While Ferrell and Reilly are riffing on their usual routine, alternating between slapstick (trying to kill a mosquito before unleashing a case of killer bees) and silly improv (as in a long string of faux-19th-century synonyms for “onanism”), Cohen has assembled an impressive cast of British thespians whose only requirement appears to be keeping straight faces while the co-stars cut up. And so the movie squanders Ralph Fiennes as Moriarty, Hugh Laurie (who played Watson opposite Stephen Fry’s Holmes) as Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, and Steve Coogan as a one-armed tattoo artist (a colorful full-Cockney creation who very nearly steals the show).
Had these supporting players actually been permitted to act, it almost certainly would have upstaged Ferrell’s self-conscious technique of mugging to camera — which feels slightly less odd when Reilly is there, pretending to be his audience. The two actors have established a certain chemistry by this point that not only sells Holmes and Watson’s friendship but gives the impression that we’re being allowed in on a private joke. It’s as if everyone else — including the queen of England (Pam Ferris) — is there to stand around and indulge them while they grandstand for one another’s benefit.
And yet, what would a Sherlock Holmes movie be without a case to solve? Here, “Get Hard” writer-director Cohen has whipped up a rather basic one from which to string the comic set-pieces: Someone has threatened Queen Victoria’s life and is committing murders made to look like the work of Moriarty — or maybe they are, and Holmes simply doesn’t have a clue. This is hardly the first Sherlock Holmes send-up to suggest the sleuth wasn’t as smart as history has led us to believe, although it may well be the first time that history itself serves as the satire’s principal target.
Woven throughout the movie is a critique of the now-outdated notions that would have been acceptable at the time, from Holmes’ fondness for cocaine to the sheer incredulity he and Watson display when confronted with “a woman doctor” in the form of Rebecca Hall (whose modernity is directly contrasted by scene-stealing companion Lauren Lapkus, playing to hilarious extremes the misogynist caricature of a woman too uncouth to think for herself). Add to that a running joke in which Holmes and Watson are credited with any number of 21st-century inventions — from drunk texting (“the intoxograph”) to selfies — and the movie comes off feeling more like the travails of two contemporary buffoons at large in Victorian England, which may also explain the frequent, anachronistic use of hip-hop on the soundtrack.
If some of the above sounds amusing enough to warrant a look, let the record show that Ferrell, Reilly, and Cohen each have far more malodorous credits to their name. Heck, even Sherlock Holmes has survived worse stinkers. But the characters offer so much more promise than anyone here chooses to exploit — give Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” a look, or sample revisionist “Without a Clue” for a clever twist — and passing up that opportunity is a crime graver than any Moriarty threatens to commit.