Film Review: Holmes and Watson (USA, 2018) is the surprise Anti-Trump film of the holiday season

When a film doesn’t have a media preview screening, you know the confidence from the studio in its quality must be low. Following that up with a dismal score on Rotten Tomatoes (currently 6%) only seems to reinforce their fears. This year’s mainstream US holiday comedy – which in past years has included surprise hits like Daddy’s Home – is that very film. Written and Directed by Etan Cohen (Get Hard), Holmes and Watson reunites Step Brothers / Talladega Nights co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in a new, much less serious telling of the classic Sherlock Holmes. So is the film really as bad as they say it is?

Well, it’s not great. But as one would hope, the film isn’t without its redeeming qualities or entertaining, laugh-out-loud moments.

Some of those redeeming qualities can be found in the ensemble cast, with Farrell and Reilly not the only comedians to reconnect for the film. In fact, some of the finest names in British comedy are surprisingly attached to the film. The Trip co-stars Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan both appear in the film – a fact which would make for an entertaining subplot in a future expedition filed under “why did we do this film? And why did you (Rob Brydon) get more screen time than me (Steve Coogan)?”.

Interestingly, both Reilly and Brydon co-star in another film about a famed duo in US cinemas this week, Stan and Ollie, a film about comedians Laurel and Hardy’s final years, which they filmed shortly after Holmes and Watson wrapped in the UK last year. This film has been much more warmly received (89% on rotten tomatoes), has seen Reilly receive a Golden Globe nomination (and by many accounts may give Vice‘s Christian Bale a run for his money), and hits Aussie screens in February. 

Hugh Laurie makes an excellent cameo as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, with some equally excellent mutton chops, while Ralph Fiennes is criminally underused as Sherlock’s most iconic nemesis Moriarty. Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) also fits the “under utilised” category. And with Americans playing the British, you’ll be happy to hear that Rebecca Hall pays them back by playing a Yank, and adds well to one of the film’s funniest scenes, involving a dead man and some cake. 

Apart from the titular characters of course, there are some notable US Comedians in there too, including the hilarious Lauren Lapkis, who Comedy Bang! Bang! and Orange is the New Black fans would be familiar with. She does her best with a pointlessly weird role that proves nonetheless entertaining. But it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo at the end of the film that makes it all worth it; a cameo we won’t spoil here and isn’t even featured in the IMDb cast due to their inclusion being the joke itself. I will say Zoolander fans will particularly enjoy the callback, and it had me laughing so hard it honestly made the film’s brief, but long enough 90 minute runtime worth the experience.  

And as for Reilly and Ferrell? They are entertaining as the camped up versions of the iconic characters, but you can’t help but wonder why they had to play these characters in particular; even the film’s score plays homage to the fact that there’s a far better (and oft funnier) Sherlock adaptation still in high rotation on a number of TV networks around the world with the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch. But irrespective of the choice to work with these characters, really the problems lay in the script. 

Cohen’s choice to dwell on some of the film’s most cringe-worthy and ultimately unfunny scenes hold the film back from even being as entertaining as Cohen’s last film Get Hard. To some extent, the sequences felt like an attempt from an team of Americans to have a go at a more British style of comedy, while never hitting the mark. When they delved into the American style of comedy that we’re used to from actors like Farrell, the jokes did land, and it did work. I enjoyed a healthy amount of chuckles and a couple of belly laughs along the way. 

What was also surprising about the film – given how often pundits have tried to label other films as “Anti-Trump“ – is how this film has more blatant criticism of Trump than even notably political films like Vice or BlacKkKlansmen. It made for a couple of well placed, if not too on-the-nose, joke about the current state of American democracy. Who would have expected this film to go down that road? Indeed, Holmes and Watson seems to be the Anti-Trump film of the holiday season.

As a film, Holmes and Watson is pretty woeful, but fans of Ferrell and Reilly will find some merit in the film and a few laughs along the way; and there are plenty of moments from the ensemble and cameo cast that make the film enjoyable in spite of its flaws. The real pity is the waste of some of the film’s most celebrated cast members, in particular Ralph Fiennes – who you have to wonder if they were paying by the word, given his lack of dialogue. And then there are the painfully unfunny scenes that lag the film’s short running time. But, honestly, a lot of this was to be expected – and in the end, a few laughs and a cameo at the end did make the experience worthwhile.

TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Holmes and Watson is in cinemas now.