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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes goes to Hollywood

Usually, the more people like a book, the more disappointed they are with the movie. I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories so much I actually wanted to name my daughter Irene Adler Craig, after the one woman who fooled Sherlock Holmes, in "A Scandal in Bohemia." Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately (now that this movie has been made), my wife said no to that.

But I'm pretty sure I would have hated this movie even if I'd never read a single Holmes story. You don't have to be a Holmes buff to know that Holmes was known for his brains, not his brawn. (Many people who've never read Arthur Conan Doyle have sneered, "No shit, Sherlock," thus demonstrating their grasp of that basic concept as well as their lack of originality.) But this Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock engages in fisticuffs at every opportunity -- and of course, always wins. There are so many fight scenes with hulking villains that at times you think you've wandered into a Jean Claude van Damme movie by mistake.

Downey, who manages to look perpetually hungover, as well as wimpy, is a poor excuse for an action hero. But he's an even poorer excuse for an Englishman. Downey acts British by affecting supercilious expressions and trying way too hard to look snobby and disapproving. Actual upper class Brits are not like that. It's only the type of American who goes over there for six months and comes back speaking with a British accent who puts on such airs. I never blamed Guy Ritchie for Madonna's pretentious and unconvincing British accent. But Downey is now the second American he has had this effect on. You have to wonder.

Ritchie, who did excellent work with "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," seems to have lost his touch. He's tried to make up for the weak, ridiculous Hollywoodized plot with a lot of spectacle and loud noise. (Movies are a bit like people that way: the lower the IQ, the higher the volume.) Naturally, the plot involves plans for world domination by a megalomaniacal villain. (Mark Strong, who has been good in other roles, seems to be doing Lucifer-as-ham-actor here.) These days, on any production costing over $100 million, Hollywood demands nothing less than a hero who saves the entire world; a mere damsel in distress is no longer sufficient.

Speaking of overdone, the ridiculous score, which sounds like amped up Gypsy music, was yet another jarring element.

In the Arthur Conan Doyle books, Dr. Watson is pretty much a cipher, a Boswell to Holmes's Samuel Johnson. In the movie he is made into a major character, which is probably why Jude Law agreed to take the role. The two men bicker like a pair of old queens the entire time; we're supposed to be charmed by this. (Think in terms of how charming you find it when any old married couple bickers.) And make no mistake, they don't banter -- they bicker.

Another discordant note: Jude Law is far too pretty to be Dr. Watson. I don't recall any of the Holmes stories making reference to the fact that Watson was so good-looking he would attract the likes of Sienna Miller. And given Downey's very ordinary looks, this is just one more way in which Watson upstages Holmes, further upsetting the natural order.

Rachel McAdams-as-Irene Adler has to rank with Denise Richards-as-nuclear-physicist (in The World is Not Enough) as one of the all time unintentionally humorous miscastings. Having young sex symbols play women who are supposed to be extremely intelligent is a losing cause. (I can't wait for the inevitable biopic of Golda Meir, starring Jessica Simpson.)

I realize this won't bother most moviegoers as it did me, but Adler's character has been totally twisted by the movie. In "A Scandal in Bohemia" Adler was cool, cerebral, and self-possessed, but also decent in character and ladylike in her comportment. MacAdams plays her as an irrepressible flirt, vamping around making goo-goo eyes at Holmes. And the plot turns her into a habitual criminal.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave. Or rather, if he's following the lead of the villain in this extravaganza, he must be climbing out of his grave. (The only thing this movie lacked were the vampires from Twilight.) The chief villain here is named Blackwood, which left me wondering what happened to good old Professor Moriarity. Sure enough, he's introduced at the very end, in one of the least subtle advertisements for a sequel you'll ever see.

Not quite sure how they'll top this, though. Perhaps in the sequel Sherlock can battle space aliens.

For a Holmes purist like me, this movie is a sacrilege. For everybody else, it merely sucks.

Recommendation: Skip the movie, read one of the Sherlock Holmes stories instead.

Addendum, 1/1/10: My son just read this review and said, "No wonder J.D. Salinger doesn't want to sell the rights to his books to Hollywood. He realizes they'd probably turn Holden Caulfield into an M-60 wielding stud who just mows down the pimp who tried to bully him....And while they're at it, they could do a remake of Miss Marple starring Angelina Jolie -- you know, the way she was in Lara Croft, kicking ass all the time."


Anonymous said...

Funny! You have confirmed our suspicions that this is best avoided.
Happy New Year!

John Craig said...

Guy -- I had those suspicions myself before going, and should have heeded them.

Happy New Year to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

Well, my son wanted to see it so we went. Having modest expectations aided in my enjoyment of the movie as a diversion, but it didn't move me. My son found it quite entertaining and was actually amused that Holmes was portrayed as a Patrick Jaine (the mentalist)/Hercule Poirot/Chuck Norris amalgam. We both got a chuckle from Downey's overplayed Brit accent. But the viewing has served its purpose in that my son can now BS about the movie with his friends - all of whom seem to have seen and liked it. I guess that's the movie's demographic.

The two things I am inclined to be a little snarky about are: 1. that our heroes got out of their boat (to supposedly go under the Houses of Parliament) on the wrong side of the river, and 2. I hate the modern flash faux action editing used in the movie that seems to be in vogue - yawn - I much prefer the more impactful style used, for example, in "Taken".

John Craig said...

Guy --
I'm glad I was able to lower your expectations enough for you to be able to enjoy it. I'm not familiar with Patrick Jaine, but I'll take your word on him.

You're more of a sophisticated movie-goer than I am, I don't even know what flash photography is, but I'll be happy to take your word on that as well.