Sherlock Holmes: Impressive Abs, Unmemorable Action

9 minute read
Richard Corliss and Mary Pols

Sherlock Holmes

Directed by Guy Ritchie

With Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong

Since his introduction to the world in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes has been much celebrated for his cleverness. He’s a cerebral detecting machine, able to make it all look “elementary.” But have his steely abs ever been given their proper due? Have we remarked enough on what a cutie-pie he is, especially when bantering with his sidekick, Dr. Watson?

No and no, but director Ritchie tries hard to correct our mistake with his populist Sherlock Holmes, which features Downey’s six-pack in a starring role and Law as his partner more in bromance than in crime solving. In this movie, Holmes’ ability to throw a right hook or dodge a flying fist matters just as much as his legendary brainpower. He fights bare-chested in the street, and when he gets into trouble, he talks through his moves in his head, computing the angle of the blow and the damage it will inflict before he actually strikes, which we see in slow motion.

This gives Ritchie an opportunity to show the action twice, a technique he employed to provide the backstory on shell games and heists in his previous films Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But here it feels as if he’s just trying to maximize the violence because it’s so much more fun for him than the brainy stuff. Each of Holmes’ crime-solving scenes slips by in an unmemorable instant. Frankly, the guys on CSI do more deductive reasoning.

The story begins with Watson about to leave Holmes for a girl, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes is jealous, and their bickering is like something out of a lesser Judd Apatow movie. They’d be the Odd Couple if they were funnier and actually mismatched. (Law is too pretty to play Watson.) The crime involves a member of the House of Lords, Lord Blackwood (Strong), who has a penchant for the supernatural. He’s caught by Holmes in the film’s opening scenes in the middle of a satanic ritual and condemned to death by hanging but vows to return from the grave. Holmes’ favorite dangerous lady, Irene Adler (McAdams), is also on hand. McAdams is saucy and fetching, but we don’t believe for a minute that she’d really give Holmes a run for his money.

It isn’t surprising that Ritchie, a director who essentially keeps making the same glib, lively movie over and over again (with the exception of 2002’s Swept Away, which stands alone in defiant atrocity), would turn Holmes into an action hero. Nor is it a sin against literature; Doyle wasn’t exactly Henry James. What is surprising is how bland the results are. The action sequences have an odd cheapness to them, and the central plot is one of those dreary take-over-the-world routines.

Even more surprising is that Downey, so quick-witted and verbally agile, doesn’t manage to overcome all that. In theory, he seems such a good choice. Holmes was a late 19th century bad boy known for dipping into the cocaine, and Downey, reformed though he may be, is still our favorite bad boy. To imagine him in a different Holmes movie, one darker, smarter and less desperate to entertain, is to dream of what could have been.


Directed by Rob Marshall

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Fergie and Sophia Loren

Poor Guido Contini. He’s a famous Italian director with a producer and technical staff ready to bring his movie dream to reality and with beautiful women lavishing their love on him, begging him just to use them. So of course Guido is miserable–because at the moment he has no clue what his film will be. Rhapsodies, fantasies have sprung from his brain before, but now, as a creative filmmaker, he can’t get it up.

This portrait of artistic exhaustion came from Federico Fellini, the maestro of Italian cinema (La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita), who in 1963 turned his notion into the bold comedy-drama 8½. The movie was a landmark for all sorts of reasons: its cunning mix of fantasy, memory and backstage reality; its placing of a film director at the center of his own work; and its facility in mining human comedy out of suicidal depression. Besides triggering a slew of navel-gazing movies about movies, 8½ inspired the 1982 Broadway musical that is the source of Rob Marshall’s gaudy, star-laden, dispiriting new film.

The problems begin at the front. As played by the Oscar-winning Day-Lewis, Guido is coiled, wary, going nowhere fast in the haze of his own cigarette smoke. Marcello Mastroianni, who originated the role, was such a natural charmer–so Italian–that he made indolence attractive and perpetual sexual adolescence not a flaw but a goal. Day-Lewis’ vibe is not Mediterranean but Nordic. He’s closer to Ingmar Bergman, the solemn Swede, than to the ebullient Fellini, just as the movie is more akin to All These Women, Bergman’s sour comedy about a musician’s frustrated mistresses, than to 8½.

Famous for the obsessive dedication he invests in his roles, Day-Lewis is so intense that he can’t unleash the showmanship–the limelight love–that has to animate any musical star. Smiling is an ordeal for him, singing an imposition, dancing a form of enforced calisthenics.

And all his women? They are a stunning lot, including five Oscar winners, and when they get to strut, they put on quite a show: the writhingly sexy Cruz, the suddenly belting Dench and, in a nice little surprise, Fergie as a zaftig whore from Guido’s youth. But they are ornamental, not organic, to the plot; they illustrate points without advancing them. Their practiced glamour doesn’t quite fill the vacuum they’re working in.

Only Cotillard, as Guido’s wife Luisa, is in command of her character, whether she’s singing, speaking or just staring darts at her philandering mate. Pain has rarely seemed so proud, or hurt so regal, as in Cotillard’s rendition of the melancholic “My Husband Makes Movies.” It’s a moment of emotional truth at the heart of this chic, hollow enterprise. The rest is vaudeville.

It’s Complicated

Directed by Nancy Meyers

With Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin

In It’s complicated, Jane (Streep), a woman in her late 50s, is an object of great desire. Her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), who left her 10 years ago for a skinny meanie, has suddenly taken to eyeing Jane as if she were the comeliest pole dancer in his favorite strip club. Meanwhile, a lonely, reasonably attractive architect named Adam (Martin) wants to take her to French film festivals and do the wild-and-crazy-guy dance with her.

We should all be grateful that there’s a movie about a senior citizen who isn’t French or Julie Christie having a sex life, right? By we, I mean feminists and/or anyone who is bigger than a size 6, grasps the concept of menopause or is generally outraged by how little attention Hollywood gives women of a certain age. I would like to say Meyers’ film is cause for celebration, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Meyers has written some astute scenes about aging and regret, heartbreak and hope. In the role of a successful businesswoman–Jane owns and operates an upscale bakery-café–who finds herself having an affair with her ex-husband, Streep is radiant, funny and endearingly vulnerable.

But Meyers demonstrates, as she did in Something’s Gotta Give, an extraordinarily limited worldview. Her heroines are allowed only one problem, and it will never include a lack of taste. Jane’s Santa Barbara home is a hydroponic dreamland where tomatoes implausibly ripen in spring. Her beautiful kitchen is filled with cake plates just waiting to be graced with homemade bounty. Watching Streep in these surroundings feels akin to seeing Sarah Bernhardt trapped in a live-action edition of Martha Stewart Living. All that perfection is fun to look at until you realize you’re more interested in Meyers’ impeccable cinematic gift shop than in anyone’s emotional outcome.

Moreover, Jake is so self-centered that the affair never seems like a good idea, although it does produce good comedy of the oh-no-he-didn’t variety. Baldwin gobbles up the role, unabashed about playing awful. “Home!” he proclaims as he lies in bed with Jane after their first sexual encounter in a decade. This would be sweet if he weren’t saying it as he’s clapping his hand over her groin.

So what’s in it for Jane? We understand that she wants the validation of hearing her husband admit he made a mistake. It’s a wronged woman’s dream, and Meyers’ intent in showing the fantasy coming true is clever and fresh. But It’s Complicated becomes the story of a choice between Jake and Adam, and thanks to Jake’s case of permanent jerkitis, there’s not a lot of dramatic tension there. Speaking of Adam, you know how he and Jane met? He was the architect on her kitchen remodel. All those cake plates of hers must have been feeling squeezed for space.


Directed by Marc Lawrence; with Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant

A couple of Manhattan marrieds on the outs join the witness-protection program after seeing a murder and are relocated to rural Wyoming. Cue homilies about how everything red state is adorable and everything blue state is phony. Aside from Hugh Grant’s attempt to channel Cary Grant, this romantic comedy is a depressing endeavor. It should go into hiding.


Directed by Betty Thomas; with Zachary Levi, David Cross and Jason Lee

Children don’t have to be fed movie junk food; they can and do see terrific animated features. And then there’s tripe like this soul-sapping sequel, which drew enough kids (and parents) to earn more than $75 million in its first five days. Having become rock stars in the 2007 film, Alvin, Simon and Theodore are for no reason sent to high school, where they take part in gags involving pain and humiliation. Seeing Squeakquel is like gorging on cheese balls for an hour and a half.

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