Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Reviewed in December 2009
Director: Guy Ritchie. Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, William Houston, Kelly Reilly, Robert Maillet, Hans Matheson, James Fox, William Hope, Clive Russell, Geraldine James, Kylie Hutchinson, Bronagh Gallagher. Screenplay: Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg (based on a screen story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson, itself adapted from characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Photo © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures/Silver Pictures/
Village Roadshow
So, the pitch is something like: let's buy the expensive "Sherlock Holmes" brand and then immediately figure out how to wipe any kind of cognition or detection completely out of the story. Let's pay more money for Robert Downey, Jr., trusting that he can do all those improv'y things he always does so as to imply some kind of personality, or at least to give the audience something to watch, even though no one has bothered to write a character (except Arthur Conan Doyle, but remember, we already scrapped that stuff). More money for a muggy Jude Law, overtly envious of Downey's sense of constant, restless energy, and still more for Rachel McAdams, who's so lacking for inspiration or for a character to play that you almost, almost can't blame the famously laddish director for caring so little about her that he lets her look cheap, young, and costumey, and leaves her to her own wavering accents. Remember that we need to save lots of cash for all the CGI, even if it tends to render the filming locations pixillated and insubstantial-looking, and even if it means making the kind of movie where scurrying around the sewers beneath Parliament inevitably leads you to the top of the unfinished London Bridge. But then: shit, that's already a lot of money. Good thing any old job of digital rendering will do. No need to make it too good. And no need to pay the four, seemingly unassociated writers, especially since most of the movie is made up of chop-socky and flash cuts.

What all this means is that Sherlock Holmes emerges as one of the sourest experiences of my movie year, not a mindless sequel, but something else: the needless dumbing-down, almost gleeful sacralizing, and generic homogenizing of an established property so that it can yield mindless sequels. And indeed, everyone on screen looks preeningly confident that they're about to be swimming in money. The action is careless, and often gratuitous: having dispatched a Rancor-sized nemesis with the discovery of a sort of electrified tuning-fork that's genuinely pertinent to the film's story (such as it is), Holmes then has to chase or be chased by this same enormous goon all the way to a colossal shipbuilding yard, so we can wait (and wait) for the indubitable climax of that huge hull sliding into the river. The hiring of Ritchie, who has never pretended much interest in people's interiors, always boded badly for this film, but surely the banter between Holmes and Watson needn't have been so repetitive, and so markedly impermeable to anything that sounds like an accumulating overview of a complicated case? When Holmes cracks into details, he usually does so by haphazardly stringing together the most stray observations in lickety-split montages that manage to race past too quickly and include lots of annoyingly redundant shots. Ritchie tips his hand early in a restaurant scene, while Holmes awaits Watson and Watson's ladyfriend. The famed detective has a Beautiful Mind affliction of keen, unbearable exposure to all of the chatter, noises, and graphic details in the space that surrounds him, and though this is offered as a sort of explanatory character beat (no wonder Holmes picks up on everything from chalk marks to skin tones, and no wonder Downey is playing him so manically!), it's all but stated that Ritchie equates logical contemplation and deduction with neurotic, somewhat comical oversensitivity. Best to be avoided, really, or else apologized for, like an off-putting handicap that occasionally comes to good use, as when Piglet's smallness means that at least someone will be able to crawl into Owl's house after it's been upended. The Milne example, Dark Knight and even V for Vendetta be damned, suggests something closer to the level of gravitas that Sherlock Holmes imparts to the potential detonation of Parliament and most of its members.

Elsewhere, Watson and Holmes's domestic co-dependence is not only mercilessly over-flagged but comes across as a prankish attempt to make Doyle's characters resonate for the Apatow audience, or to make up for the miserable fumbling of the female characters by implying at least some lucidity into gendered subtexts, as long as they're about guys, preferably guys who, outside the home, are proficient at slap-boxing and really know how to shatter a patella. I just despaired of hearing Law nagging and whingeing. I suppose there's something to be said for the over-crowded, over-proppiness of Sarah Greenwood's sets, as there is for Hans Zimmer's hypercaffeinated score. They're built to match Ritchie & Co.'s plan for this cynical enterprise, a film that would flop like Sky Captain if it were called Dark Clouds over London and actually had to earn any of the built-in affection or visibility that comes with calling itself Sherlock Holmes, even though it's a film where Holmes has to hand-hold Watson through several steps of a basic map of London, where key locations have already been circled in red.

My profound annoyance with the movie may well be excessive, but the picture Ritchie has stewarded fails to show any fidelity or even affection for what it inherits under the Sherlock Holmes umbrella, and yet it so sloppily and joylessly executes its brawly, post-digital, post-Pirates of the Caribbean vision of what it means to be a holiday franchise picture that I couldn't feel any pleasure in it, no more than I could grasp the sense, or follow the plot, or piece together the characters. Even the laborious dispatching of Mark Strong's inevitably broody master-baddie has to be followed by a compulsory (but nakedly sequel-preparing) dialogue between Downey and McAdams, who even more than ever is caught looking antsy and incapable, like Julia Roberts did in Hook. And then there's a post-script where Law and Girl™ have to pay a call on Downey so he can keep walking through the finer points of a plot that the film seemed much less bothered with while it was actually unfolding than it suddenly does when we're finally, finally, exhaustedly past it all.

I usually reserve "F"s for movies that are saturated with even more flagrant incompetence than you get here, or that actually feel venal in their motivations and unexamined ideologies. You can't fully paint Sherlock Holmes with either of those brushes, but I heartily wish I hadn't seen it, and I recognize inside my reactions the rare sensation of suddenly liking everyone involved with it a little bit less. The film is awfully Brothers Grimm-ish in antically, often nonsensically buzzing about with a determination to be almost anything, even something fussy and ugly, as long as it doesn't resemble the material that putatively inspired the artists to take up the challenge in the first place. More than that, I feel like I spent two hours with a team of crazed, thick-headed chefs whose impulse, upon being served a counter full of scrumptious ingredients, is to toss all the food and flavor onto the floor and start bonking people, even themselves, with the bowls and the rolling-pins. And they expect to be paid for it, quite lavishly! Why is it that we inhabit a commercial film culture where this is not at all unreasonable as something to expect? F

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Robert Downey, Jr.

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