In the rare moments when the mystery spoof “Holmes & Watson” clicks, the movie is like a cross between a raunchy ’80s comedy and a Daffy Duck cartoon. As super-detective Sherlock Holmes, Will Ferrell is just like Daffy, the overconfident hero, blustering his way into trouble. And as Dr. John Watson, John C. Reilly is Porky Pig, the long-suffering sidekick. They’re a winning pair of losers.
But while Ferrell and Reilly’s Daffy and Porky routine is good for a few chuckles, it’s likely to disappoint fans of the more sidesplitting “numbskull buddies” dynamic the duo perfected in their hits “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers.” Even the stars sometimes look befuddled about what they’re supposed to be doing, romping around Victorian London in a parody that never figures out what it’s mocking.
Written and directed by Etan Cohen (who previously made the Ferrell vehicle “Get Hard”), “Holmes & Watson” starts with Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth as a boy, learning to suppress his feelings so the bullies at school won’t get to him.
That odd prologue — not that funny, not that relevant to the plot — is the first big sign of trouble for “Holmes & Watson.” Cohen and Ferrell (who co-produced the picture) apparently wanted their Holmes to be as brilliant as Doyle’s, while still letting the star play to one of his strengths: acting like an overgrown child. Their solution? Make Holmes so emotionally stunted that he’s kind of a drip to be around.
Fast-forward to the early 1900s, and Sherlock Holmes and his best friend, Dr. Watson, are two of the most famous people in England, thanks to their long battle of wits with criminal genius professor James Moriarty. But then Moriarty escapes justice and threatens to kill the queen, putting the crime fighters’ reputation at risk.
Ralph Fiennes plays Moriarty, in one of the movie’s many impressively cast supporting turns. “Holmes & Watson” also has Kelly Macdonald as the landlady/servant Mrs. Hudson, Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, Rob Brydon as Inspector Lestrade, Steve Coogan as a shady one-armed tattoo artist and Rebecca Hall as a visiting American doctor who bewitches Watson.
Cohen and company play around with the classic Holmes mythology. One of the more zingy recurring gags has Sherlock and Watson casually offering each other heroin and cocaine, riffing on Holmes’ frequent drug use in Doyle’s stories. One of the flatter bits has the hero trying out a bunch of different hats from scene to scene, looking for the one that will become his trademark.
Otherwise, “Holmes & Watson” plays fast and loose with the source material, especially when it comes to historical context. Some of the anachronisms are just meant to be jokes, like the heroes using 100-year-old technology to take selfies and send drunken sexts. Others are lazier, like putting the Titanic into a story with Queen Victoria, who died a decade before that ship was built.
True, it’s silly to nitpick the timeline in a Will Ferrell comedy. But that little goof speaks to a larger slackness. Cohen and his cast don’t commit themselves to making fun of anything specific about Sherlock Holmes or the early 1900s; instead, they just generally have a go at anything old-timey (like the way Reilly’s Watson pronounces the name of that exotic insect “the mos-kwit-to”).
Because of the talent involved, every now and then “Holmes & Watson” hits on something bizarrely inspired: like Watson and his love interest getting sexually aroused while rubbing their hands over a gunk-covered corpse; or Holmes using his deductive skills to figure out where to aim while relieving himself in an alley.
But too many of the movie’s gags land with a thud. An extended dig at President Trump comes off as smug. An Alan Menken-penned musical number is more clunky than magical. Multiple smutty scenes never build up any good scatological momentum because the picture’s rated PG-13.
“Holmes & Watson” is more of a well-meaning misfire than a total train wreck. It’s frustrating mainly because all of these folks can do much better. They can be a lot Daffier.