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movies / December 30, 2009

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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.

sherlock_holmes_fight

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!

sherlockholmes_3

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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15 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. fuck  |  December 30th, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    the worst parts of the film were guy ritchie’s dumb affectations (“style”) and those parts that everyone saw in the trailers. sherlock holmes ruled! yeah!

  • 2. mike flugennock  |  December 31st, 2009 at 5:03 am

    Oh, god, not the sequels. Anything but that. Anything but the franchise. Please, I beg of you, for the love of god, no.

  • 3. Allen  |  December 31st, 2009 at 10:25 am

    A pretty apt assessment, I think. Downey and
    Law are good — trim intelligent models of 19th century confidence and ability, Law in a traditional mode, and Holmes in his “drug addled brawler, gay for Watson, genius eccentric”-ness.

    … but yeah Guy Richie’s direction is a bit of a mess; and I would also add that the villain falls flat a bit. The movie might have been called: “Holmes and Watson wish they were in a better movie”.

  • 4. Tim  |  December 31st, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    I liked the movie, and I hope you read Lance Mannion’s review (before he saw it). It’s a ping pong review, where I’d like you two to bounce off your ideas – the man acknowledges Guy Ritchies artistic license in a good way, and.. well.. here it is:

    http://lancemannion.typepad.com/lance_mannion/2009/12/holmes-contra-holmes.html

  • 5. mydick  |  January 1st, 2010 at 3:47 am

    Are there any movies you don’t like?

  • 6. i will suck your dick  |  January 1st, 2010 at 3:50 am

    We’ve reached this point: 7 articles per month. 7 amazing articles. I will pay u money just keep them coming! Ask not what your eXiled can do for you, but what you can do for your eXiled. Where do I donate?

  • 7. aleke  |  January 3rd, 2010 at 5:43 am

    “Downey intends to focus more on Holmes’s patriotic side and his bohemianism, and felt that his work on Chaplin has prepared him for an English accent.“

    “Downey intends to focus more on Holmes’s patriotic side and his bohemianism,“

    “Downey intends to focus more on Holmes’s patriotic side“

    *saves a bunch of ugly old landowners*

    Yeah, I need more sequels! Give me more DOrritos! MORE MORE CONSUME MOAR MOREGIVEIT TO ME GIVEME THE DORRITOS

  • 8. Breeze  |  January 3rd, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    If they are going to bastardise Sherlock Holmes to the point that it is an insult to the original stories why not just create a new character and put him in this story. Nothing would be lost.

    This movie is the best example of the need to dumb down entertainment and add in lots of action scenes for the modern audience. A complete disgrace to Conan Doyle’s legacy.

  • 9. Jussi  |  January 5th, 2010 at 6:36 am

    Fine piece, but where are Ames, Levine, Brecher & Dolan? Come on, guys.

  • 10. Antonio Garcia  |  January 5th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    A good book i should write is about depicting the real Sherlock Holmes and the villain Jack the ripper, depicting Sherlock Holmes as Jack the Ripper and the detective, In other words Sherlock Holmes really was Jack the Ripper and he investigated his own murders, And that’s the reason why Jack the Ripper was never apprehended, I told myself that i should find a writer and help publish a book like that. I think it would be a New York Times Best seller.

  • 11. Antonio Garcia  |  January 5th, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    In other words Sherlock Holmes really was Jack The Ripper, and i think it would be a New York Times Best Seller, Thank You, Antonio

  • 12. Alex_C  |  January 5th, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Sounds like a better movie than that POS 2012.

    Since the price of a ticket would feed me for a week, I don’t see movies. I don’t know how the theaters are doing so well, which they are, just like during the last Depression. By “don’t see movies” I actually mean, I have been seeing one a year, if someone else treats, since my own mid-2007 financial crash.

    I’ve just started reading this site seriously, and it seems like there are a lot of good writers here, but it seems they’re writing less these days? I’d love to write for this site, do out and do stuff like be a day-laborer (or a wait-for-laborer) for a day or a week and write about that. I’d go stand by the freeway onramp with a sign and write about that. I’d go volunteer at the local soup kitchen and write about that. Maybe spend a day “canning” (gathering aluminum cans) and write about that and my fellow canners.

    But who am I fooling? There’s no money in writing and this is why the writers are going away. I myself would be much wiser to put my time into learning to trap pigeons. Awful lot of unpicked locks in this town too, I should learn to do something about that too, while they still protect anything worth taking.

    The Doom is thick out there …. better see a movie or two while we still can.

  • 13. Dan Guenzel  |  January 8th, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Where do I begin?

    Do I begin with the feelings of despair that greet me upon reading laudatory and complimentary reviews of this execrable junk, realising therein how totally, completely and utterly disconnected modern audiences are with simple art, cinema, even entertainment?

    Or do I begin with the unnecessary criticism of a piece of Hollywood dreck (unnecessary because its defects are all too visible to anyone who has any appreciation at all, however small, of what once was in the cinema) that shows clearly how contemptuous its amatuer makers are of their audiences? Or do I note the hilarious miscasting of the two leads, a miscasting as inspired as that of having Tony Cuurtis play a medieval knight or Gary Oldman playing Beethoven? The most charitable thing one can say about Mr Downey is that a Paul Scofield he ain’t. And Mr Law? Well….

    In the face of such movie rubbish words fail me. The stupider and wilder these things get the less one is able to find the words to use. How, after all, does one go about writing serious criticism of a kindergarten Christmas play? Therefore I can only recommend to anyone who reads this to avoid wasting a brass farthing on this mess and instead curl up with a good book of Holmes stories written by Mr Conan Doyle. Or, if it must be a Holmes movie you want to see, turn to the venerable Rathbone series, where Holmes was portrayed by someone who was born to play him, or watch one of Peter Cushing’s masterful portrayals.

    One can only hope that this nadir, this bottom-of-the-barrel Holmes affair will soon be relegated to the trash-heap of movie history where it so richly belongs.

  • 14. Carpenter  |  January 12th, 2010 at 2:18 am

    I agree with Dan Guenzel. The whole point with the Sherlock Holmes stories is that he is a man who excels through brains, not brawns. This movie undoes that. It is like putting Mowgli in New York, or make Snow White the leader of a dwarf guerrilla. (Oh God – don’t look now, Disney. Nothing to see here.)

    And what’s with all the “they are close so they must be gay” comments in every liberal-boy review about a story involving more than one man? Men can be friends. It is a fact. Get over it.

  • 15. Flatulissimo  |  January 17th, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I officially no longer trust Eileen as a reviewer. This was the first Sherlock Holmes movie to include a fart joke. A fucking FART JOKE! And it wasn’t even funny. Fuck all who made or enjoyed this garbage.


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