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Stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, as the title detectives, are a long way from the bros-in-absurdism chemistry they perfected in Talladega Nights and the all-timer Step Brothers – but not too far that they don’t wring at least a half-dozen full-throated laughs.

Holmes & Watson

Written and directed by: Etan Cohen

Starring: Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly

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Classification: PG; 89 minutes

rating

I had no illusions walking into Holmes & Watson late on Tuesday. The comedy’s distributor, Sony, had made sure no member of the press would lay eyes on the film before its Dec. 25 opening, the only movie of the holiday season to forgo advance screenings. And it’s not as if they were trying to keep a delightful Christmas Day present under wraps, to surprise all the good little film critics and audiences.

So yeah, Holmes & Watson is bad. At moments, writer-director Etan Cohen’s Arthur Conan Doyle riff is shockingly terrible, with scenes that end arbitrarily, a say-what-now structure that ignores basic storytelling logic and jokes that wouldn’t pass the first-draft test of your local Learning Annex’s “Screenplay 101” class.

But there are moments, however fleeting, that suggest there’s a decent Mel Brooks-ian farce hiding amidst the wreckage. Deeply, profoundly hidden moments, but peeking through every now and then, an annoyingly sporadic Christmas miracle.

Stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, as the title detectives, are a long way from the bros-in-absurdism chemistry they perfected in Talladega Nights and the all-timer Step Brothers – but not too far that they don’t wring at least a half-dozen full-throated laughs. Ferrell can still shriek with the best of them, and Reilly can do this type of straight-ish-man shtick in his sleep (and has, given his other seasonal comedic pairing, the equally-wan-but-for-different-reasons Stan & Ollie).

The pair’s co-stars, notably Rebecca Hall as an American doctor fond of electroshock therapy and Lauren Lapkus as her feline-raised companion, also offer better comic timing than Cohen’s script asks of them. And there’s even one late-film cameo that’s almost bewildering in its execution, given that it serves as both a terribly obvious joke and echoes one of Ferrell’s most famous line-readings (I won’t spoil it, even though the film mostly deserves it).

And that’s the central dilemma of Cohen’s far-too-elementary film: It can’t decide whether it wants to let its performers run wild and venture into the full-on surrealism of something like director Adam McKay’s Ferrell-Reilly filmography, or stick closer to Cohen’s comfort zone of loud and boring shock comedy (Get Hard, Tropic Thunder).

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So Holmes & Watson arrives in theatres like another type of festive special: your drunk uncle. You’re really rooting for it, but man, what a waste.

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