Saturday, December 29, 2018

How Sherlockian is "Holmes and Watson?" [SPOILERS!)

The first key to any Sherlock Holmes movie is always the leads. If you don't find the actors quite right, you're not going to like much that follows. T'were Jonny Lee Miller not the lead in Elementary, I might have felt more kindly to it. Robert Downey Jr. is a bad fit as Sherlock Holmes, but he has enough charm as RDJ to fill that gap while surrounded by more passable Holmes players. And Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly?

Well, they really work for me. But beyond that, Holmes and Watson is a very Sherlockian movie, full of lovely details that might trip lots of triggers for a broad-spectrum Holmes fan.

In its pre-credits origin sequence for Sherlock Holmes, young Sherlock arrives at boarding school with his pet turtle. Clyde the turtle from Elementary is now part of the lore? Cool. And the rest of Holmes's origin is properly over-the-top parody. Tricked by his school-mates into kissing a donkey's butt when thinking it's Bridgette, his school crush, Sherlock starts to shed a single tear, then uncries, drawing the tear back in and immediately launching into a chain of observation-deductions that gets all of his schoolmates expelled so he is the only child at school, and all of the teachers can focus only on him, making him the smartest boy in England. An unlikely origin? Well, I like it better than "his mother had an affair with his math tutor" that another movie and book tried to tell us.

And just like Young Sherlock Holmes, he meets Watson at that school (Watson being the janitor's son) and his first words are, of course, "Elementary, my dear . . ." needing Watson to introduce himself before he can finish the line. One of the charming elements of this movie is that "origins" aspect -- one ongoing thread through the whole film is Holmes's search for the perfect hat, a search that culminates only when he and Watson have reached their own relationship culmination.

The credits are a quick flashing of Holmes's career blooming from boy detective to the capture of Professor Moriarty, and the movie truly begins with Moriarty's trial . . . a trial which hinges on the famous Sherlock Holmes's evidence, of course.

But where is Holmes? Back at Baker Street practicing his pronouncements, down to the way he holds his index finger. This, to me, is some prime Sherlock pushed to the nth degree. His pronouncements are a key part of the Holmes way of solving crimes, and seeing him primp over them is lovely. Need a little Canon in the movie already? In a bit that borrows from "Dying Detective" a mystery box arrives at Baker Street purporting to be evidence for the trial, yet containing a virulent disease. This time, instead of a spring and sharp bit assembly, the African plague virus is borne by a mosquito.

And that leads to another Holmes/Watson tradition that the parody pushes to the extreme: Holmes telling Watson what to do, with Watson immediately doing it. Holmes tells Watson to do a Dutch jig, and Watson does it, Holmes then explaining that the rising body temperature from the jig will attract the mosquito so they can kill it.

Here we get into our first session of literal slapstick as the two attempt to swat the mosquito on each other, and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson gets a cricket-bat to the face as she tries to help. (Hey, "Smack! Smack! Smack!" is Canonical.) And if that wasn't enough slapstick, Holmes's RDJ-based mental calculations to finally kill the bug lead to cracking the killer beehive case (Holmes keeps bees in Baker Street, why not?), and the part that has cracked me up every time I've seen it, including the previews, Watson attempting to shoot bees. And the diving helmet bit just makes it better.

"It's working!"


But, with all these distractions, can they make Moriarty's trial?

Gun-toting John Watson is a classic John Watson. Gun-firing John Watson is the perfect parody extreme of that John. They make Moriarty's trial in a hail of bullets . . . perhaps not from a source you would normally expect.

Moriarty on trial after Holmes captures him isn't Canon, but if it was good enough for Rathbone and Cumberbatch, it's good enough for Ferrell. And of course there is a twist at the end of the trial, every single time. Remember Sherlock Holmes's "cat-like love of cleanliness?" His panther impression at the trial might make one recall that line, as well as set up a reason for his eventual love interest.

And it is obvious from the start that Holmes doesn't consider Watson as he should saying how he was alone at the crime scene when Watson was plainly there. Because the real plot of this movie is completely Holmes and Watson's relationship . . . which is completely in tune with a more modern focus on the pair. It's not just about the deductions any more, and this movie gets it, at least on that point.

The crowds that chant Sherlock's name in the courtroom may not be Canon, but if feels like Canon, as beloved as Holmes has become over the years. A character named "Jacob Musgrave" flips one of our Canonical triggers, though, as does Holmes's solution involving fingerprints, an art he pioneered in "Norwood Builder."

Lestrade's constant frustration with Sherlock Holmes is well-played in the movie, though one has to wonder who Lestrade's un-named constant companion with that stereotypical period cleavage is. And half the time, the inspector is only doing what Holmes tells him, only to have it turned-about later.

Watson writes Canon while Holmes plays the violin, Holmes contemplates how dull detective-work will be with no Moriarty. Cocaine and opium are tossed in as ridiculous Victorian commonplaces. There's a lot of Holmes-stuff here, but a lot of Ferrell/Reilly as well, when they start screaming for Mrs. Hudson in a very improv-sounding sequence, pleasant to the ears of a fan, horrific to the casual movie-goer, I'm sure. But the conclusion of the sequence, with Mrs. Hudson coming out of Watson's bedroom with her Mark-Twain-looking lover quickly turns things in a different direction.

This is one of the movie's great strengths -- it moves through bits like a train. Too many comedies dwell on a single line or moment as if waiting for their laughs, this one just keeps charging ahead, and that pace makes it an eminently rewatchable film for those of us who are into it.

Watson's fanning over Queen Victoria seems very appropriate for our Watson taken to the extreme. And Holmes just can't stop making deductions . . . unless it's a moment where a knife won't cut a cake properly, Lines like "The game is a-starting" might be meaningless to a non-Sherlockian, but a Holmes-that-is-not-quite-full-Sherlock is kinda fun for . . . well, some Sherlockians . . . the ones the movie hasn't lost already.

Holmes vomiting at the mere though of corpses in the morgue is the exact opposite of Canon-Holmes, yet harkens nicely to the Holmes-with-diarrhea of 2001's O Xango De Baker Street. It also gives Holmes that needed moment to connect with Millicent, the newest competition for Irene Adler as the woman. (They both have that Canonical "cat-like love of cleanliness," you see. Literally, in her case.) Watson's autopsy-love scene with Dr. Grace Hart quickly gets him in a romantic place as well.

Grace's suggestion that Watson try to advance his part of the partnership to "co-detective" is both a big plot driver and a real understanding of current views of the Holmes and Watson partnership. CBS's Elementary is all about Watson becoming a consulting detective equal to Holmes. We view their partnership differently now than our counterparts in the 1940s did, and Holmes and Watson leans hard into that thought. While Holmes is a genius, far beyond Watson in intellect at every turn, whether it's mental Battleship or communicating with Mycroft at the Diogenes, but Watson is Holmes's guide in the realm of emotion. And this movie is all over that paradigm.

Want more Canon? Stamford's prediction in A Study in Scarlet that "I could imagine his giving a friend of pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects" is completely put on display here, as Holmes tests the black orchid poison that the murderer used by dosing Watson with it . . . and then observing the effects. Sure, they are things like temporary brain damage, body image dismorphia, and lactation, which might be funny to you, or not, but, hey! Canon!

Okay, and is "Gustav Klinger," the one-armed tattoo artist, a reference to Les Klinger who has consulted on Hollywood things occasionally? Well, given that there was a Russian Bolshevik politician with that name, maybe not, but one has to wonder.

Is an "Okinawan beard flip" a baritsu move?

Did drunk Holmes and Watson start with Cumberbatch and Freeman? I suspect that's a thing now.

When they go to Dorset Street, a neighborhood so bad that prostitutes pull men off coaches and you can get stabbed for asking the time, it was the site of a Ripper murder that Holmes and Watson have visited many times in pastiches, so that almost counts as Canon . . . well, almost.

Moriarty's daughter was a concept pioneered by Laurie King as a foil for Mary Russell, and do we get a Moriarty daughter here? Welllll, maybe . . . I won't spoil that. A touch of Steve Hockensmith-type "Holmes in the West?" Well, that might show up, too.

And of course we get "Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" . . . . only at the most dire time for Holmes to make that pronouncement, as be betrays Watson during the movie's break-up turn.  (Does it bother you to think of Ghandi saying of Watson, "I'd hang that bitch myself!"? Then this might not be the movie for you.)

There is a level of detail to Holmes and Watson that I dearly love and I look forward to the DVD release, just so I can pause to read the newspapers and journal entries that flash across the screen. Even fish-and-chips wrappers have headlines trumpeting Sherlock Holmes, so there's a lot to see here.

Details, fun characters, it's a pity this movie is being dismissed by so many, eager to toss another film on their "Worst of 2018" list because they didn't get it. But there is something to get here, and laughs to be had. (Hey, the one other person in the theater for my second viewing was laughing as much as me!) A lovely Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack that, unfortunately, doesn't contain the climactic duet-plus-one of Holmes finally finding his love of Watson (don't get your hopes up -- they're shippable, but they don't go full-on bi in the movie). What does it take to "get it" with this one?

Well, Holmes and Watson might be the sort of thing that scientists one day narrow down as one of those DNA-level tastes that you have to be born with. We could deep-dive on psychological factors all day long and probably still not completely profile why some of us are enjoying this movie even as the torches come out from the cinema villagers.  But is it a Sherlockian movie?

Yes. There's a lot of Sherlock to find inside it, if certain aspects don't scare you off. (Not for the easily grossed-out, not for the Trump fans, not for the purists, not for the Ferrell-haters, not for any who thinks stupid can't be genius . . . .) It will be very interesting to see how this does on DVD, when that initial Rotten Tomatoes score is but a misty memory.

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