Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes as a literary character has never diminished. In his scholarly study, “The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Methods and Mysteries of the World’s Greatest Detective,” Sherlockian connoisseur Christopher Redmond champions Holmes as “the world’s favourite character for English-language films.” Puffing on his habitual meerschaum pipe and jaunty in his customary deerstalker cap, the renowned detective made his debut in “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887.  Later, Doyle wrote three more novels, along with 56 short stories.  Victorian Era readers discovered Holmes largely in “The Strand” magazine. Craving his adventures with conspicuous relish, they clamored for his return after Doyle killed him off Sherlock at Reichenbach Falls amid the Swiss Alps in “The Final Problem” in 1893.  Many refused to renew subscriptions, and circulation plummeted.  Doyle held out for a decade before granting the character a new lease on life.  He penned his final Holmes story “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” in 1927.  Since Doyle’s passage in 1930, dozens of Sherlock Holmes tribute novels have been published.  Long after his creator’s death, Holmes has not merely survived, but also flourished, considerably in film and television.  Inevitably, after more than fifty films, Sherlock’s popularity made him a candidate for parody.  Traditionally, as the second banana, Doctor Watson has been portrayed either as a non-entity or a nincompoop, while the eccentric Holmes remains aloof, shrewd, and often pedantic.  Although film and television treat Holmes with dignity, as a role model, often hushing up his narcotic dependence, some filmmakers have spoofed the sagacious sleuth with a wink and a smile.  For example, did anybody watch the “Gnomeo and Juliet” sequel “Sherlock Gnomes” released in the spring of 2018?

 The latest send-up of Sherlock Holmes casts former “Saturday Night Live” funnyman Will Ferrell as the gimlet-eyed, amateur detective and John C. Reilly as his inseparable sidekick Dr. John Watson.  Mind you, “Holmes & Watson” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) doesn’t qualify as a comic masterpiece.  Unfortunately, the structured material doesn’t allow “Get Hard” writer & director Etan Cohan much room to improvise.  Nevertheless, the farcical humor is often amusing in ways which only faithful Ferrell fans may appreciate.  “Holmes & Watson” opens with a memorable scene about the youthful detective’s first day at school.  His classmates bully him without mercy.  Eventually, they fool him into kissing a donkey.  Ultimately, he gains the upper hand, primarily because he can control his emotions.  Afterward, he exposes scandalous things about them which prompt school officials to expel them.  Cohan returns to this theme frequently as Holmes advocates brain over brawn.  Meantime, Watson’s fond desire to attain equality with Holmes as a co-detective.  Sherlock dismisses this fantasy out of hand until events compel him to realize how integral Watson is to his investigations.  They team up to thwart a copycat of their arch-nemesis, the wicked Dr. Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes of “Skyfall”), who threatens to kill Queen Victoria.  All along, Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) has argued that no copycat exists.  Nevertheless, Holmes remains adamant that a copycat has been imitating Moriarty. Indeed, Holmes points out that Moriarty has fled to America and take refuge in the Wild West!  Ferreting out this copycat killer turns out to be a challenge.

 Cohan’s irreverent screenplay may alienate purists for the liberties that he has taken with hallowed material.  Several scenes in “Holmes & Watson” stand out for their sheer hilarity.  The “Weekend at Bernie’s” ordeal when our desperate duo struggle frantically to cram Victoria’s unconscious body into a trunk far smaller than her voluminous bulk is hysterical. The ludicrous scene where Holmes and Watson swat each other as a poisonous mosquito flits back and forth between them exemplifies textbook slapstick.  When Cohan isn’t poking fun at his protagonists, he levels some criticisms about sexual inequality in Victorian England and adds some veiled but sarcastic commentary about the Electoral College and Donald Trump’s presidential shenanigans.  At one point, Ferrell’s Sherlock dons a fez with the slogan “Make England Great Again.”  Meantime, Cohan has apparently perused “The Sign of Four” because he incorporates one of Holmes’ signature lines: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”  Cohan cannot resist the impulse to lampoon the two Robert Downey, Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” epics. Ferrell’s Holmes imagines chalk drawings and elaborate calculations in anticipation of a dire predicament, too.  Unlike Downey’s Holmes, Ferrell miscalculates wildly, particularly when he fails to topple an ogre-like boxing adversary.

 Comparatively, “Holmes & Watson” is neither as hilarious nor as ingenious as “Without A Clue” (1985).  In that parody, Watson originated Holmes as a recurring magazine hero and hired a drunken stage actor to portray him in public.  A lowest-common-denominator farce, with elements of slapstick, “Holmes & Watson” surpasses Gene Wilder’s lukewarm parody “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975). Cohen sticks to the traditional mystery formula in “Holmes & Watson,” except Holmes acts like a witless imbecile.  Blundering about with a falsetto English accent, Ferrell plays his typical clueless character.  John C. Reilly is just as sidesplitting, but he maintains an imperturbable straight-face.  Observe how he holds Victoria’s hand discreetly in their scenes together.  Ferrell and Reilly were riotous in both “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) as well as “Step Brothers” (2008).  Cohan stages all their scenes with an equality rarely seen even serious Holmes mysteries.  Surprisingly, Watson is a crack shot with his revolver, and he can pound a giant into submission with a folding chair.  Furthermore, he cavorts with their leading lady, Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall of “The Town”), as they perform an autopsy on a murdered corpse that fell out of a huge cake during Holmes’ surprise birthday party at Queen Victoria’s Palace.  Clocking in at 91 nimble minutes, the above-average, PG-13 rated “Holmes & Watson” delivers elementary nonsense in varying degrees of lunacy from fade-in to fade out.

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