I remember an issue of Entertainment Weekly several years ago that angrily denounced the word "escapism" to describe movies. Too often, they claimed, that people leaned on the term like a crutch when they felt critics were harsh towards glib entertainment, ultimately turning "escapism" into a synonym for "crappy". Their argument was that nobody would go to a fine restaurant, order the steak, and discover it wasn't very good, yet call it "escapism from good cooking", so moviegoers shouldn't do the same. Sherlock Holmes isn't crappy, and I wouldn't use "escapism" to describe it, but I think the things that are wrong with the movie lie around this word, and the definition it implies.
For instance, take the gigantic explosion seen in the trailer, with Watson (Jude Law) screaming "HOLMES!" seconds before fire erupts in the background. During the final film, director Guy Ritchie shows us this scene with most of the sound sucked out in a dream-like, hypnotizing slow-motion, as Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes runs the length of the dock and further explosions billow out alongside him. It's one of the most stunning sequences in the movie, featuring eye-popping visual effects and excellent sound design. It's also a resounding reminder that you're watching a modern major motion picture about Sherlock Holmes, produced with movie stars and budgeted for slick effects.
Many people will be quick to ask: was I expecting something else? Maybe not, but it still strikes me as distracting. Just when the viewer has settled into 1890's London (where Holmes and Watson are trying to determine how a sinister spellcaster named Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong, has apparently come back from the dead), the viewer's eye will catch a glimpse of the slightly modernized costumes (like the Japanese-looking suit Watson wears to a dinner or the low-cut dress worn by his fiancée Mary, played by Kelly Reilly) or spot a CG background (a late-night boat scene looks particularly bad) and the illusion will be broken. Even if Holmes is not about escapism, the look and feel of the film certainly prevents any.
I am also a huge fan of cop and detective films, and there's nothing more gripping than standing right alongside the main character as they try to crack a real head-scratcher. It's not really anyone's fault that Sherlock Holmes is not interested in this kind of amusement, but I was a bit disappointed by the way the film plays the mystery. On one hand, you have the Holmes character, who is the Charles Xavier of turn-of-the-century London, solving instantly the cases that Watson reads to him and determining at a glance everything he needs to know about a room and everyone in it. The interesting side of this is a few scenes where Ritchie shows Holmes pre-plotting his next moves; these are highly entertaining little vignettes that put the viewer in Holmes' head and actually give Richie something to do as a director (most of his work here is by-the-book). Everything else is a mysterious back and forth the audience gets left out of: the movie hints at stuff but doesn't give the viewer enough information to figure it out themselves, and Holmes already knows everything.
All of that said, there are pleasures to be wrought, primarily in the performances by Robert Downey, Jr. and various other members of the cast. I have started to worry that Robert Downey, Jr. had moved into Johnny Depp territory, i.e. a period where their clever actor instincts get pushed aside in favor of playing themselves in everything. I first saw Holmes on December 12th and was bothered by the way he acted, but I caught it a second time on the 21st and settled into the performance a bit better. Certainly, Holmes gets all of the best lines in the movie; I wonder how many Downey ad-libbed himself (the screenplay was apparently on The Black List, a yearly collection of Hollywood's 75 best unproduced screenplays). Law makes for a good foil, although I am a bit distracted by the cumulative amount of winking sexual tension in every line between the two characters, if only because it seems to overshadow the plot points those lines are actually about. The only disappointment is McAdams, who, through no fault of her own, feels tacked on in an artificial way. Please note, Hollywood screenwriters: she can beat up as many people as you can throw at her during the first two acts, but if she ends up in peril in the third act, that still makes her the damsel in distress.
In the middle of the movie there's a section that really packs everything in: it starts with Holmes and Watson using their detection skills on a watch, segues into a very funny joke, shows some more of the pair's devotion to each other and finally culminates in an action sequence, the first half of which is fun and exciting (involving a pair of electrified tongs) and the second half of which is loud and uninteresting. That's Sherlock Holmes in a nutshell, and if you're still interested in seeing that version of the character, have at it. Most mysteries have a MacGuffin, an event or item designed to motivate the characters but which is actually just a meaningless placeholder when the dust has settled. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, the movie's MacGuffin is itself.
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