Sherlock Holmes continues to do extremely well and deservedly so. I was pleased with the movie. I even got over my annoyance at the very long line I had to wait in. And the lines, they just keep forming. It’s good, even inspiring, to see how people are attracted to this latest incarnation of the famously neurotic detective. Any doubt over the quality of the movie just evaporated for me and there are a number of reasons for this.
A good performance, even a great performance, can be overlooked or taken for granted. That has happened to Robert Downey Jr. over his career but certainly not since Iron Man. People love the guy. He has the star power to carry Sherlock Holmes and he does it with the grace of a great actor. No one has ever gone to see a James Bond movie just for the plot. People want a thrill ride from this kind of movie and that’s what they get with Downey Jr. And, as much as this movie is full of action, it is nice to see that Downey Jr. commands the screen with a number of quiet and quirky moments. He inhabits Holmes completely in much the same manner as he did with Charlie Chaplin.
Since, at its core, a movie like Sherlock Holmes is aiming to be a crowd pleaser, I think it’s more than okay not to hold the story to too high a standard. As far as action flicks go, this story works. Even as a mystery, it’s fine. For my taste, however, mysteries tend to be tedious in general. I am not against a really good one but I’m not terribly disappointed if it turns out the most interestng things lie somewhere beyond solving a riddle as in the characters themselves. I came to see a buddy picture and that’s mostly what I get from this movie.
There’s a funny scene where Jude Law’s Dr. Watson foils the latest Holmes experiment. Exasperated with Holmes as he’s attempting to hypnotize flies while playing the violin, Watson simply raises the glass covering the flies and then asks Holmes if it isn’t possible that the glass cover had anything to do with controlling the flies. This is a hilarious send-up to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. In that creaky 1939 classic, Dr. Watson is a bumbling fool and Holmes is left to experiment with flies up to the very end of the movie. Those guys were not buddies, more like master and servant. In this latest Holmes, you have two equals and so you get something more like the chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Even more on the same vibe with Sherlock Holmes is The Front Page about two newspapermen in the 1920s who have worked together longer than they’ve done anything else. Of the film adaptations of the stage play, my favorite is the 1974 remake, directed by Billy Wilder. In that movie, Jack Lemmon is a lifelong reporter on his last story before moving away with his fiancée. Walter Matthau is his lifelong editor who is none too pleased to have his pal leave and is more than willing to sabotage his friend’s departure with the woman he loves. We see Holmes do his best to undermine the credibility of Watson’s fiancée early on in the movie which ignites the real tension behind the movie.
As it is, the story in Sherlock Holmes gets pretty close to The Front Page without losing its way. If the writers were solely interested in making an artful film, they certainly could have concentrated even more on the dynamics of Holmes and Watson splitting up. Perhaps the most artful film version of Holmes is Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes from 1970. In that film, we get to dig deep into the characters, get a curiously satisfying mystery and even get Christopher Lee as Sherlock’s wiser and older brother, Mycroft. We see Holmes struggle with his cocaine addiction. And we get to explore his sexuality which remains ambiguous up to the very end of the movie. Watson is somewhat his equal but they’re just too different to be real pals. There’s a very moving scene where Watson finally asks Holmes if he’s ever been with a woman to which he gets the most vague reply. This latest Holmes is not so daring in that regard but it leans towards being a quality film. It certainly shares the lush look of Wilder’s film which he acheived without any CGI wizardry.
Sherlock Holmes also achieves its best moments without any special effects. If the plot to this movie ever gets heavy for you, all you need to do is wait for any number of funny and captivating moments between Holmes and Watson. Everyone provides a fine performance in this movie but, without that chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law, of course, there is no picture. Sherlock Holmes, at its core, is a great buddy picture. If the stories should improve on this budding franchise, so much the better. Whatever evolution it should take, that buddy dynamic is the engine that will keep Sherlock Holmes full steam ahead.