"HOLMES & WATSON" — 2 stars — Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall; PG-13 (crude sexual material, some violence, language and drug references); in general release; running time: 89 minutes
"Holmes & Watson" gets off to an intriguing start, but eventually settles into mediocre comic territory.
Playing on the chemistry Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly have built over the years through comedies like 2006's "Talladega Nights" and 2008's "Step Brothers," "Holmes & Watson" is a feeble humorous take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective.
Etan Cohen's film opens in 1867 as a young Sherlock is about to start his first day of school. He's bullied so mercilessly that after a particularly humiliating encounter, Sherlock decides to go full Vulcan on his human emotions and morphs into the clinical super-sleuth we know and love.
Fast forward a few years, and Sherlock (Ferrell) is the toast of London, solving crimes alongside his trusted BFF Dr. Watson (Reilly). The pair is preparing to testify against Sherlock's nemesis, Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), who is facing murder charges. But once in the courtroom, Sherlock determines the man in handcuffs is really an impostor and that the real Moriarty has fled to America.
A dastardly plot to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) is soon uncovered and Sherlock must apprehend Moriarty in time, but matters are complicated by a pair of love interests from America (Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus) — one of whom was raised by feral cats. At this point, the plot mostly functions as a way of transporting Ferrell and Reilly from one comic set piece to another.
The childhood prologue sets an interesting tone for the movie — part of the reason Sherlock is so brilliant is because he uses his powers of deduction to get all his classmates but Watson expelled — but the rest of "Holmes & Watson" only connects on about half of its swings. And unfortunately, we're not scoring at MLB standards.
The movie definitely has enough winning jokes to keep you hoping for more, along with supporting performances from Kelly Macdonald and Rob Brydon as the boys' maid and as the local inspector, respectively. But a lot of the humor here seems designed to either gross out audiences or just appeal to their inner 10-year-old (picture multiple characters vigorously chewing into raw onions as if their lives depended on them).
There's also plenty of material designed to lampoon the Holmes' elitist know-it-all demeanor and, in a nod to the recent Guy Ritchie films, the detective's habit of mapping out scenarios mentally before engaging. It might have been a little nicer to get more of the intelligent stuff, given the lowbrow alternative we get instead.
For a PG-13 film, "Holmes & Watson" strains hard against the limits of vulgarity and crudity, and jokes about topics like masturbation and bodily functions are scattered aside the more witty content. There's also a bit of social commentary, taking aim at both the backwardness of the 19th century and the foibles of our present culture (including the obligatory, if stale, knocks at the Trump administration).
It's hard to see this mess becoming a favorite alongside the pair's other efforts; even if individual moments in "Holmes and Watson" will make you smile, the entire production is a tough sell at full ticket price.
"Holmes & Watson" is rated PG-13 for persistent vulgarity and crudity, including suggestive sexual content and drug references, as well as slapstick violence and intermittent profanity, including a single use of the "F-word."