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‘Holmes & Watson’ doesn’t have a clue

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Saying that someone “makes it look easy” is a solid compliment. You’re implying that the person in question is so good at what they do that it looks effortless. It’s a nice thing to say.

Here’s the thing, though – oftentimes, a LOT of work goes into that perceived ease. And if that work doesn’t get done and done well, what once looked easy can quickly turn Sisyphean.

You could get “Holmes & Watson.”

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly have proven to be a potent pairing on-screen. The one-two punch of “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers” illustrates their comedic power. The pure chemistry led to brilliant riff-laden dialogue and (occasionally literally) balls-out physical comedy; they were fantastic together. In short, they made it look easy – but it wasn’t. At all. And now we have proof.

“Holmes & Watson” is as abysmal a misfire as we’ve seen in 2018. It is unfocused and unfunny, completely lacking in coherence. Ferrell and Reilly flail across the screen, shouting and grunting their way hither and yon, desperately grasping for something – anything – that might be considered a joke. It is lazy comedy poorly executed, its undeniably talented stars left to simply figure it out.

(Spoiler alert: They didn’t figure it out.)

You’re familiar with the character of Sherlock Holmes. This movie gives him a dumb and scattershot origin story, some nonsense about boarding school and sacrificing emotion for logic and blah blah blah. Grown-up Holmes (Ferrell) has become the most esteemed detective in London, while childhood friend Watson (Reilly) has become a (not very good) doctor who serves as an assistant/chronicler to the detective.

Classic Holmes nemesis Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, “Antony & Cleopatra”) has been caught – or has he? Holmes has instead cooked up a ludicrous theory involving the fact that the Moriarty in custody is an imposter, a lookalike (his proof for this idea is stupid and gross and hence perfectly fits this film’s notion of hilarious). And so, Holmes and Watson must figure out the truth.

It gets complicated when the Queen herself receives a threat, putting the pair on the clock. They have some assistance in the form of Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall, “Teen Spirit”), a physician from Boston, and Hart’s mute companion Millie (Lauren Lapkus, “Dog Days”), but they have few leads and fewer days in which to stop the plot to kill the Queen.

There’s more, but honestly, it just gets stupider and stupider. And not the fun, inspired stupidity of previous Ferrell/Reilly joints. No, this is sad, frustrated stupidity, born of wild white-knuckle swings and gritted-teeth flopsweat. No one knows what they’re doing or why they’re doing it; the whole enterprise reeks of broken-spirited misery.

It gives me no joy to savage this movie – I’m a big fan of Ferrell and Reilly, both as a team and as individual performers. Each man has multiple roles of iconic excellence on his resume. They’re extremely gifted. But this … this is too much. It’s not even that it’s a bad movie – mere badness could be forgiven, perhaps even embraced. No, this is worse. It’s a movie that threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what stuck … and then used all the crap that fell on the floor. There are sight gags that aren’t funny and pointless subplots; the inexplicable choices abound.

The only mystery here is how anyone let this atrocity out into the wild in the first place.

Now, writer/director Etan Cohen is probably better than this. But while he’s got some decent writing credits in his back pocket, this is only his second feature directorial effort; the first was the not-as-bad-as-this-but-still-really-forgettable “Get Hard.” That inexperience likely led to things getting away from him a bit; controlling the riffing, improvisational tendencies of someone like Ferrell is probably tough for anyone, let alone someone lacking experience.

(Really, it’s all another big indicator of Adam McKay’s talents as a filmmaker. One can’t say for certain that it was his influence that was the difference between this tire fire and the anarchic joy of “Step Brothers,” but it sure looks this way. Not that we needed the added info – with “Vice,” McKay has placed himself firmly in the upper echelon – but there it is.)

As for the performances, well … they’re just sad. To think that so many of us looked forward to another Ferrell/Reilly team-up and this is what we got – regrettable. Every scene is colored by the undercurrent of desperate need. It all looks like work, which is the precise opposite of what we look for from these two. Even their vaunted chemistry – still present in spots despite all of this – can’t save them. Fiennes has the haunted look of a man who has gazed into the abyss, while Hall and Lapkus doggedly do their best to gold plate this particular turd. The talents of actors like Kelly MacDonald, Hugh Laurie and Steve Coogan are wasted.

“Holmes & Watson” is as utterly miscalculated as any major studio release of the year. It is woefully, depressingly unfunny. It feels longer than any 90-minute movie has any right to, a dull and dumb hour-and-a-half that you’ll never get back. My wife fell asleep for a significant chunk of the film; I’ve rarely envied anyone as much.

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