For a good time, call Robert Downey Jr.
Of course, some people don’t want to have a good time. That’s one of the mysterious facts of our modern lives, and that’s why there’s a market for films like Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. But for the rest of us, who are still pursuing happiness, as is our inalienable right, we go to movies that might have some kick to them. And these days Downey has a kick like a mule.
His Sherlock Holmes—I’ll just give Downey authorship right here and now, because frankly, director Guy Ritchie is kind of embarrassing—well, it’s wholesome fun for the whole family. I was a little sorry I couldn’t have watched it at age ten, when I would’ve been the perfect audience. At ten, there’s no better fantasy than the one about adults who combine strong, loyal affections with skilled violence, the combo of qualities you’re already starting to suspect is extinct in the human race. Downey’s version of Sherlock Holmes is all about fondness and fighting, played in a broad, goofy way that’s everything a ten-year-old could desire.
And it has that clichéd Victorian London gloom, too, the sense of lurid depravity combined with good manners that’s so enjoyable to watch. I thought for sure Jack the Ripper would turn up, but the plot is actually concerned with Lord Jack the Satanist (Mark Strong). An English aristocrat aligned with the Devil just might be a worthy foe for Sherlock Holmes, whose staggering intellect tortures him in his off hours.
Downey’s just the man for a version of Holmes that’s all about a messed-up genius wrestling with his own outsized gifts. He’s got a beautifully haggard face now—I like to think he acquired it in prison, it’s the romantic in me—and huge dark eyes that glitter with multiple catchlights. (Catchlight is the reflection of the light shining in the actor’s eye. Some actors have better eyes for this purpose than others. Downey is the current president of the Catchlight Club.)
Downey’s also hit the gym and gotten ripped to an incredible extent, so he can do scenes of bare-knuckle brawling against huge muscle-bound blokes and not look altogether ridiculous. These pit-fighting episodes are supposed to be one of the many outlets for Holmes’ mercurial genius—others include, famously, violin-playing, drug-taking, pipe-smoking, and smelly chemical experiments in the 221B Baker Street apartment that he shares with Dr. John Watson.
As Watson, Jude Law has found his perfect role. His infuriating pretty-boy looks are held in check by the bowler hat and moustache and restrained manner. Patiently enduring—and secretly adoring—Downey’s maddened and maddening Holmes suits him to a T. He should buy the hat and keep the ‘stache and do ten sequels, because he’ll never be more appealing again in his punk-ass life.
Some critics try to get purist about Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but it’s no use. Holmes contains multitudes; there’s no end of ways to get at him. Make him very young, or quite old, or a psychologically disturbed cocaine addict; give him a love interest, or send him to America, or have him fight the Nazis, or explore his beekeeping urge in depth. Re-imagine him as a brilliant modern-day diagnostician with a bum leg, a Vicodin addiction, and a best friend named “Wilson,” and you’ve got yourself a hit TV show called House.
You can build whole interpretations of Holmes out of single traits and ticks described by Arthur Conan Doyle. Basil Rathbone did him keen and hawk-eyed, Jeremy Brett favored sniffy and precise, and Downey goes for Holmes as a brilliant wild card, driven and erratic, and so devoted to Watson he can’t bear to part with him. Much of the humor of the film involves Holmes’ attempts to break up Watson’s impending marriage, which threatens their happy bachelor home. Holmes was always a fairly non-heteronormative character, as the academics say, but this movie makes a big point of it. Is he homosexual? Bisexual? Pansexual? Or to paraphrase 30 Rock, is he “only gay for Watson”? You be the judge!
Of course there has to be a woman heavily featured as an erotic obsession of Holmes’, because there’s nobody gay here but us chickens. So Rachel McAdams plays Irene Adler, an important character in the Conan Doyle stories. She’s “THE woman,” the elusive feminine ideal of notoriously misogynistic Sherlock Holmes. In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia” she was an actress and presumed adventuress who (briefly) outwitted Holmes. In this movie, she’s an all-out adventuress and con artist working the demi-monde, and a former lover of Holmes’. McAdams is pretty miscast, or rather, both pretty and miscast. She has such a friendly, open-faced quality, she doesn’t look too convincing, all heavily made-up and mysterious and periodically pulling a concealed weapon to engage in street fights.
But what the hell, it doesn’t really matter. This isn’t precision filmmaking. This is all about crude revelry for your inner ten-year-old.
The movie gets a bit slow and plotty toward the end—it’s a genre film burden that you have to resolve the plot—you can’t just leave everything hanging and call the film a “character study.” But while the narrative unwinds, it’s pleasant to wonder how the sequels will go, if you know your Conan Doyle stories. When and how will Watson’s wife be killed off, so Watson can return home to 221B Baker Street? Who’s going to play Professor Moriarity? (Please not Ralph Fiennes! Terence Stamp would’ve been good if he weren’t 107 next birthday….) Will the filmmakers rush ahead in Part II, to the titanic confrontation between Holmes and Professor Moriarity at Reichenbach Falls? And will Holmes’ apparent death there be the cliffhanger ending, setting us up for Holmes’ amazing return in Part III?
Only time and the number of sequels will tell.
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