Saturday, January 2, 2010
Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes has and likely will continue to receive attention -- positive, negative, thoughtful and juvenile -- concerning the transparency of its "hinted" homosexual bond between Sherlock Holmes and his trusty friend Dr. Watson. Indeed, they're so inseparable that one might be forgiven for assuming that Guy Ritchie had adapted the work of Sir Arthur Conan Bro-yle. Christ, is this really how I've decided to usher in the new year of this blog? With asinine puns that would make a five-year-old groan? I deeply apologize ladies and gentlemen; if I have offended one or all of my five regular readers I can only assure you that it shan't happen again.
Where were we? Ah yes, Guy Ritchie's action-flick re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes. Well, perhaps it's not as extreme a makeover as some believe: in Doyle's stories, Holmes knew the street fighting techniques Robert Downey Jr. uses every few minutes to knock what few teeth haven't already rotted off out of the mouths of cockney thugs. Downey is, even to this admitted fanboy, astounding in the role of Holmes: one could be forgiven for cynically viewing Downey's casting as proof that producers will seemingly never fund a big-budget British action feature without an American star for insurance, but that ignores both Downey's tenuous, recently founded position as a bankable star and his incandescent performance as the English Charlie Chaplin. Downey captures the full range of the character, Holmes' wit, infinitely broad range of knowledge and powers of deduction.
Furthermore, the world Ritchie builds around Downey and his fantastic performance is an exemplary depiction of Victorian England, flawless in its deep, grimy flaws. The skies maintain a constant gray formed from that terrible mention of London's rainy climate and the pollution of the Industrial Revolution; stagnant rainwater forms into puddles everywhere, but this London is so dull that the water can barely reflect it. A moderate steampunk influence permeates this world, with spring-loaded Derringers and an electric contraption that proves central to a climactic setpiece.
Downey and the background are the two best aspects of the film, but both are outrageously, inexplicably truncated, set aside in a movie that belongs to them in favor of...what, exactly? Certainly not the intricacies of the plot, involving the cultish occupations of one Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who is now apparently contractually obligated to be a villain in any movie that calls for a British antagonist), a Member of Parliament caught sacrificing young virgins (oy) by Holmes and hanged by the courts. He's pronounced dead -- by none other than Dr. Watson (Jude Law, hopefully staging a comeback after slipping from guaranteed bankability to critical and commercial indifference in the last few years) -- but returns from the grave and continues to kill.
The problem with this setup is that it clearly defines the villain in a "whodunit" movie, which might not have been a detriment had Ritchie streamlined the picture. Yet Sherlock Holmes drones on for two hours with barely enough material to fill a 70-minute film: Law has nothing to do but pout as Watson and occasionally lend a hand in a fight, a streetwise version of Law's performance as Lord Alfred Douglas in Wilde. Various interesting characteristics dash fleetingly across the screen -- a gambling problem, the question of his medical acumen in pronouncing a man dead who "returned" from the grave, the tension he suffers from his fiancée and Holmes' rivalry -- but they vanish as soon as they appear, titillating the audience with the promise of three-dimensionality before firmly rooting Watson as nothing more than the straight man (so to speak) for Holmes. Holmes himself has few opportunities to prove his intelligence, never letting us in on a single aspect of his thought process during the main investigation and demonstrating his deductive reasoning in one or two tacked-on scenes inserted to assure the audience that he's a genius; had the writers cut out these scenes -- all of them unimportant and at best barely relevant to the story -- and simply allowed Holmes to deduce relevant clues while still retaining the ultimate mystery until the end, Sherlock Holmes might have been as entertaining as it thinks it is.
And what of that latent homosexuality between Holmes and Watson? Does it provide anything other than nervous titters for gently homophobic crowds? I can think of no reason why Holmes, the most brilliant man in Britain, would revert to the mindset of a five-year-old when faced with the prospect of his dear friend getting engaged. He's above frat-boy sexism, thus leaving a gay crush as the only reasonable explanation, but Ritchie softens this by providing Holmes a romantic foil with Irene Alder (Rachel McAdams), one of only two characters (along with Moriarty) who could successfully match wits with Sherlock Holmes. By injecting her into the film primarily to offset complaints by purists and homophobes, however, Ritchie cheapens the character, along with Holmes: while Downey has a firm grasp on the character, Ritchie and the writers don't, and the only reason Irene -- seen often at the mercy of a mysterious employer -- ever pulls a fast one on Holmes is because he is occasionally forced to act like an idiot for the sake of convenience.
Sherlock Holmes is fun enough, I suppose, and there are far worse ways I could have spent my New Year's midnight screening (some people likely are catching up on the awards bait, so I imagine at least a few poor souls watched Precious). There are a few sly tidbits here and there, such as a cheeky Victorian take on someone hearing a creepy noise then continuing to bathe without a care; the cast largely acquits themselves nicely, and fans of Mike Leigh's black-lighthearted comedy Happy-Go-Lucky should be pleased to see the splendid Eddie Marsan as the questionably competent Inspector Lestrade. It's also wonderful to see Robert Downey, Jr. cleaned up and gaining traction at last in Hollywood as the lead of two concurrent franchises. Long may he reign. But the entire structure of Sherlock Holmes is just off: Holmes doesn't detail any clue until the very end, after an action setpiece that renders further discussion moot and offers only a "oh that's how they did it" montage that would fit better in a CSI episode than a cleverly constructed Holmes tale. By the time it finally gets around to the plot, no one cares, and that's more or less Sherlock Holmes in a nutshell.