Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sherlock Holmes: Studio Sturm und Drang

Someone at Warner Brothers gave director Guy Ritchie a multi-million dollar budget and the script to Sherlock Holmes to create a holiday super-movie, and Ritchie did what one would expect: he created a Guy Ritchie movie, only with bigger stars and badder special effects. For some people, I suppose, that isn't such a bad thing, though the result bears little resemblance to a story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

To be fair, the plot to the movie was conceived before Ritchie came on board, so one can little blame him for the uninspiring story line of a British lord (played with all the expected deadpan seriousness by Mark Strong) who dabbles in the dark arts and escapes hangman's row to apparently come back from the dead in order to unleash the usual bits of death and destruction, in the process bedeviling the fact-obsessed Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his intrepid sidekick, doctor Watson (Jude Law). There's little original here in the storyline of mystical occultism being faced down by twentieth century rational deduction, though the studio would apparently wish it so.

Which isn't to say that there isn't some outstanding talent behind the film. Ritchie, of course, brings his rough-and-tumble British low-life sensibility to the movie, imagining Holmes as a kind of roguish, professional boxing, deductive savant (effectively turning him into the kind of super-hero he probably wishes he had helming his earlier, lower budget outings, which were so much more effective for their simple roguishness and lack of high-tech pomposity). Holmes is effectively able to deduce within milliseconds on the fly and in stop-time slow motion (much as, I suppose, Stephen Hawkings is capable of imagining the entire mathematics of the birth of the universe in his head), though he lacks the basic social skills necessary to conduct a simple dinner conversation with Watson's new fiance. That's not to mention his uncanny James-Bond-like ability to disable even the most imposing of combatants (or five) with a few critically placed karate chops. That any of this is potentially possible is entirely besides the point: the point is whether Robert Downey Junior can turn the character into an entertaining spectacle of twitches, ticks, and nervous recitations for an hour and a half, which he effective does, earning, once again, my admiration for his most recent abilities (see Iron Man and Tropic Thunder).

Jude Law also handles his own as Downey's counterpart, keeping the toy of Holmes wound up as necessary and battling his own twin demons of gambling and an entirely uninteresting courtship with a superfluous lady friend (whose only purpose in the movie seems to be to keep us from fully realizing the entirely homo-attractive underpinnings of the Holmes/Watson relationship).

One sometimes gets lucky when one has a studio tent-pole movie budget to work with, and Ritchie basically does: his sound crew does an amazing job with the sound editing (expect the movie to be nominated here), and the art and set design is right-on, and no more clearly expressed than in the end credits, which are certainly the most beautiful part of the movie and the best credits seen in film since Lemony Snicket (if they nominated credits for Oscars, this movie would be a shoe in this year).

And yes, celebrating Downey's performance and the sound editing and ending credits of the film does mean that the rest of this baggy bundle has little to recommend it, but I do think that talent, even if found stuffed around the edges of a bloated studio popcorn flick, deserves its due. The dedication from the talented below-the-line crafts people - who create the rickety sets and the slow-motion explosions - is what basically keeps this movie afloat, delivering its ten dollars worth of holiday distraction.

Clearly, this is a movie conceived by studio producers (if one credits the Wikipedia article), and this is made no more clear than in the decision to hide the film's potentially most interesting villian - Moriarty, Holme's nemesis - entirely from view, as a set up for potential sequels. An outing between Downey's fidgety Holmes and the cool, chalky calculations of a Professor Moriarty might, indeed, be interesting. The only problem is that by the time we've gotten through this initial incarnation of the Holmes character, it's hard to know whether or not to care. A Holmes conceived as a socially inept detective-savant is an interesting idea, but without the incisive humor of, say, Jim Parson's Sheldon on CBS's "Big Bang Theory", such a character can get tiring, fast. If Warner Brothers does decide to take this property out for another outing, we'll need both a more original villain from the supposedly cleverer-than-Holmes Moriarty, as well as a little more well-placed humor.

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