“The Game (of Genre) is Afoot, or Will Ferrell ‘a-starting’”
In my course on academic film criticism, I critique popular reviewing as a “say nothing” enterprise; the practice often reduces to “the film was good [or bad].” The problem with such evaluative criticism is that without a methodology for determining what good or bad might mean, the project is doomed to failure.
Coupled with this, most popular film reviewers engage in a kind of group-think. If you sample a set of reviews, you will discover the forwarding of very few innovative ideas about the movies under scrutiny, and a great deal of repetition of banalities.
Of the many lamentable things about Internet culture, the new algorithms that determine our modes of thinking reinforce the stripping away of nuance and disagreement. Review aggregators use these cookie-cutter reviews as suspect data to further reduce the complexity of how and why we might talk about films.
For example, the Internet Movie Database reports on a film’s “metascore.” Like Rotten Tomatoes, another such summary mechanism, the metascore amalgamates parroted reviews, producing a self-fulfilling prophesy: at the center of a bell curve of taste, the aggregate sense of whether a film is worth seeing or not snowballs in one direction or another.
As of January 2, 2019, the lowest metascore for a film at my local movie theater is a 24 for Holmes and Watson, designated in a warning color, red. In a pique of sheer insanity, the nth version of Transformers, Bumblebee has a metascore of 67, given the green light by a consensus culture that has lost its collective mind.
The reviews of Holmes and Watson are blisteringly negative. One example will suffice, because it stands in for any number of other reviews I could quote: On IndieWire, David Erlich writes that the film “supplies fewer laughs in its entirety than Step Brothers does in its deleted scenes.” He continues, “The only compelling mystery about Holmes and Watson is how so many funny people have been squeezed into such an unfunny movie, a movie that isn’t nearly smart enough to recognize how stupid it should have been.” The criticism is built on a crucial assumption about genre that I would like to explore: Erlich assumes that Holmes and Watson is a comedy. The last time I checked, there was not a stone tablet commanding this to be so.
I agree that, by and large, the film is not all that funny, although I would observe that the dozen or so people in the movie theater I saw the film with laughed a fair amount, as did I, far more often than the death knell of comedy criticism: “the only funny parts in the film were already in the trailer.” It’s also worth noting that the funniest films of the past fifty years were panned by critics: Airplane!, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers. We might have good reasons to distrust popular film critics when it comes to predicting what we will treasure as funny decades from now.
We need an expansive criticism, not a reductive one. Why do people go to see Will Ferrell movies? How do they work? Why do they work? Good criticism offers a new insight into some potential answers to such questions. Like Derridean linguistic deferral, there is not a universal formula somewhere that allows us to wash our hands of a film with the slathering of a red 24 next to the film’s title.
What if Holmes and Watson is not a comedy at all, but a Sherlock Holmes film?
The experience can still make us laugh: Holmes tries to swat a poisonous insect off of Watson’s head, eventually hitting him with a large cricket bat, in the process smashing open a case of killer bees. Holmes tries to contain the far nastier insect threat than initiated the sequence of comic events, placing a diving helmet on Watson’s head.
No one would accuse Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) of not being funny enough. Yet, it is a funny film: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” an exasperated Thatcher says about his ne’er-do-well charge, Charles Foster Kane, who is losing copious amounts of money attempting to make the world a better place using the bully pulpit of the press.
More to the point, in the endless recyclings of the Sherlock Holmes mythology, plenty of funny things happen. In one of the Basil Rathbone films, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Werker, 1939), the consulting detective plucks pizzicato at his violin, attempting to find the right pitch to get the flies in the room to assemble in a glass on the table before him. Indeed, this scene is not only deconstructed in Holmes and Watson, but was already lovingly reconstructed in Guy Ritchie’s film, Sherlock Holmes (2009), starring Robert Downey Jr. as the sleuth.
Holmes and Watson parodies the Guy Ritchie film’s best contribution to the cinematic representation of Sherlock Holmes: as the detective is about engage in a fight with an enemy, Robert Downey Jr.’s character quickly calculates the physics of all that he is about to do in order to defeat his opponent by the end of the encounter. Will Ferrell’s Holmes, of course, bungles this method repeatedly; John C. Reilly’s Watson fares even worse.
When a character like Sherlock Holmes has ascended to mythological status, new films by necessity press him into axiomatically more interesting situations. The much beloved Steven Moffat BBC series, Sherlock (2010-present) and the recently cancelled Elementary (CBS, 2012-2018) are built around such an intertextual premise. Only the most moribund theoretical position that insists on fidelity to the source text would find these two shows anything other than refreshing.
By this standard, Holmes and Watson is as delightful as any of these other versions of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is a devilishly complex show, but Will Ferrell can do funnier things with his face and body than can the Shakespearean Benedict Cumberbatch. Those of us who love the detective, in whatever form, are desperate to see more of him, now that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is long since incapable of supplying us with new, so-called authentic stories of his most famous hero’s exploits. Give me Sherlock Holmes, and I am happy; it matters less how I am served the dish than the fact that it is enjoyable to eat.
All criticism needs to do is forward a new understanding of how and why Holmes and Watson presses the mythology of Sherlock Holmes in a new direction. It need not be a positive direction: good criticism can also question whether more harm than good has been done to the world via its introduction. Indeed, a large swath of academic film criticism is devoted to fretting about the race, class, and gender politics of particularly offensive Hollywood cinema.
However, in the case of Holmes and Watson, I think something quite productive is engaged. At the film’s conclusion, Holmes and Watson say goodbye to the women with whom they’ve fallen in love. Watson’s infatuations are split between, absurdly, Queen Victoria, and Grace Hart, with whom the doctor conducts an autopsy to track down the mastermind behind a plot to assassinate the queen. Meanwhile, Holmes vomits the whole time, unable to stand the gore associated with this aspect of detective work. It’s refreshing to see an obnoxious hero like Sherlock Holmes handed his just desserts now and again.
In one of the film’s most aggressive maneuvers, which will surely drive earnest Sherlock Holmes fans to distraction, the detective falls in love with Millie, whom Grace claims to have raised in a feral state as a science experiment. Here, we are far from Irene Adler, the only woman on the planet apparently smarter than Holmes in Conan Doyle’s sexist imagination. He indeed, obnoxiously strips her of her very name, calling her instead merely, “the woman.” Ferrell portrays Holmes in the presence of Millie as a jittery schoolboy smitten. Jeremy Brett is surely turning over in his grave. But luckily for us, we can’t hear him doing so.
In the third act, the film jumps narrative rails, locating its setting as April 1912, oddly eleven years after the death of Queen Victoria. Holmes thanks Watson for his help in solving the case. In another assault on the Sherlock Holmes canon, the beloved Mrs. Hudson from the Basil Rathbone films and the Benedict Cumberbatch television show turns out to be the villain, and evil Professor Moriarty’s daughter to boot. With Watson’s help, Holmes discovers the location of the bomb, throwing it off of the Titanic, killing the housekeeper turned villain in her life boat.
This is a turning point in the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In this version of the tale, Holmes steals all of the credit for their work together, refusing to grant Watson his wish to be labeled a co-detective at 221B Baker Street. However, after the Titanic caper is solved, Holmes sees the light and lavishes praise on his sidekick, publicly announcing that Watson’s name should forever more be associated with the greatness of the Titanic. So much for well-meaning beneficence.
Chaotic buffoonery wins the day, as a decade-since dead queen is saved along with an ocean liner that is about to become the greatest tragedy at sea in human history. In 2018, we Americans should understand something about such political buffoonery. Part of a series of jokes in Holmes and Watson, including a moment when the detective seeks out proper headwear, not having discovered the deerstalker signature. One of the candidates is a red MEGA hat: “Make England Great Again.”
As Holmes says goodbye to Millie as she is about to board the Titanic, she reveals that she was only pretending to be uneducated, allowing herself to conduct a sociological experiment of her own. Holmes attempts to one up her, claiming that he knew of her ruse all along, but of course he has clearly been bested by the gender ideology of 2018, which has long since discarded the mores of the early 20th century. Holmes and Watson is no better, nor worse, than the other contemporary Holmes stories, which all find ways of constructing three dimensional female characters who are not named Irene Adler.
In short, for someone like me who just likes to watch movies, particularly ones featuring Sherlock Holmes, a beloved figure in my life, largely because of my long since passed father’s infatuation with him, Holmes and Watson delivers plenty of engaging circumstances, and even thematic material on which to ponder.
Even for the purists who have surely abandoned my line of reasoning, the film turns back toward the source texts in unexpected ways. Indeed, the foundational Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1887) is set in Salt Lake City in 1847. While Holmes, Watson and Moriarty never step foot in the United States, Basil Rathbone did go to Washington, D.C. during World War II, desperate for our powerful nation to aid in the rescuing of Britain from the Nazis.
In no more improbable an occurrence, the final shot of Holmes and Watson finds the co-detectives having traveled to the American West, presumably having either survived or skirted the sinking of the Titanic. They have tracked Moriarty, in a wildly optimistic gambit for a sequel, Holmes and Watson: Together Again, perhaps hoping for a soaring metascore of 25. Long live the queen; long live popular film criticism.