Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes


What an astonishingly average movie. Despite the lavish commercials and full court press by its marketing, Sherlock Holmes is not very entertaining and tends to drag. Like the best Holmes stories, the viewer/reader has no chance of solving the mystery, because Holmes has access to information no one else can (for example, a poison made from a specific variety of rhododendron). And so the joy in the story must lie in other places, perhaps the method by which the story is told or perhaps in the chemistry between those stanchions of camaraderie Holmes and Watson.

Taking the second point first, there is very little chemistry between Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). The original stories make it clear that Holmes could be petulant and perhaps a bit childish at times. He is also a man of obsession and addiction. As one might expect, Downey has the petulant part down to a T; but it goes a little too far, to a level of willful brat. Holmes is a monomaniac, letting nothing get in the way of his sleuthing, to the point of forgetting other things in his life. But Downey's Holmes delights in picking on Watson—testing drugs on his dog or playing the childish game of "I'm not touching you." His childishness is acerbated by Watson's impending nuptials to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), an act that threatens to take away Holmes's favorite toy. For his part, Watson is played as a suffering parent, recognizing that the child Holmes is not dealing with the emotions well but moving on. I did like that Watson is given his own personal foibles, such as a gambling problem, but then nothing is ever done with them. Petulant child meets exasperated parent, over and over. It's only when the two of them are fighting villains and henchmen that they appear to have any fondness for one another beyond the chasing the game. An overly psychological analysis might suggest that they fight well because they are taking their aggressions out on their foes, but I won't go that far.

As for the story-telling, its heavy-handedness detracts from any possible joy that could come from it. Sherlock Holmes's skill is in deduction, from taking minute sometimes unnoticeable evidence and reasoning out its importance. We really only get to see this take place a few times, once unfortunately when Homes is trying very hard to embarrass Watson's intended bride. Of course, the denouement of the movie has Holmes spelling out how he worked out the mystery via flashback, and the audience is allowed to see why the camera lingered for a few moments over a vat of frogs (seriously). But there is never any doubt who the villain is, Lord Blackwood (played nicely by Mark Strong) is portrayed as evil incarnate, lacking only the maniacal laugh as his plots come together. The result is that the film moves in fits and starts from scene to scene, propelled by uncovered evidence intermingled with a few moments of Blackwood's villainy. And of course, there are scenes where the shot lingers on some vital clue for a few seconds—and you can never know why—that just slow down the pacing.

The plot also contains a new ability for Holmes, the ability (most Ravager-like) to predict every move of a fight and what his appropriate response should be. First we get to see it in slow motion as Holmes works it out in his head, then we get to see it real time as his schedule succeeds. I can't say what this special bonus feature does for the story-telling—telling the audience what is going to happen before it happens is cool exactly once. But it adds nothing to Holmes's character that we don't already know and he doesn't use it in every fight, making it somewhat useless, especially when he gets tossed around by the foes on whom he chooses not to use it.

The story itself involves Lord Blackwood's plot to take over England using a secret society and an apparent skill at magic. When Blackwood is onscreen, he really does take it over, and I look forward to finding other work by Mark Strong. But his scenes with Holmes never feel like much more than tongue-waving and "nyaah-nyaah" sounds coming from the two of them. And that the plot is advanced by Blackwood's inexplicable desire to publicize his nefarious scheme, to the public in general and personally to Holmes, seems dazzlingly stupid of what was otherwise a brilliant plan. If only he could keep his trap shut, he probably would have succeeded.

You'll note that I have not even mentioned Rachel McAdams's Irene Adler, who really is nothing more than a plot device for the movie, used to propel the movie forward and to add the special "twist" at the end, the twist that anyone who knows anything about Holmes should have been able to figure out from its first hinting. She performs okay, never pushing the role to be give it any sort of life beyond its flatness utility in the plot. I think that's a shame, because the idea of Sherlock Holmes having a love interest is so strange to most viewers that it could have been exploited for interesting story points. Instead, it falls on the cliché of "good woman gone bad."

I will say that Victorian London's drabness and filth are portrayed well. There is a real feel for what the city may have been like, though I'm not sure how accurate the depiction was. The result is a comparatively dull backdrop, since only once do we really see any characters with whom we cannot easily relate and the backdrops are nearly always cityscapes.

Seeing the trailers and movies, I was concerned that Sherlock Holmes would twist the character too far from his source. The gleeful fisticuffs and general merriment between the characters seemed to stray too far from the characters I know. As it turns out, the trailers and commercials show the only real excitement between the characters, while the rest of the movie is taken up by two men who can barely be in the same room together and only work together out of love of the chase. The movie has far fewer action sequences than the trailers imply, which potentially makes it that much stronger a film. But ultimately, the writing and directing just fail the characters and otherwise strong actors.

It's a shame really; despite its blandness and predictability, Sherlock Holmes proves to me that in fact Downey could play a very effective version of Conan Doyle's archetypal sleuth. It's just that this movie never really gives him the chance. And while I know there are sequels planned (and why not—it's making a boatload of money), unless I see something that indicates they will rise above the listless and pro forma story in this movie, I'll have very little interest in seeing any further adventures for Holmes and Watson. (I do think, however, I shall go find Young Sherlock Holmes in order to see a movie that takes a great deal of joy in the characters….)

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