Sunday, December 27, 2009

Faux Sherlock Holmes: Movie Review

I admit it: while most dorky kids my age were fantasizing about Star Trek, I was entranced with the world of Sherlock Holmes. I was already a confirmed Anglophile, and his coldness, intellectualism, and frankly sexy standoffishness set me up for years of complicated and unfulfilling relationships with men.

That said, I still adore the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, not just out of nostalgia but because I think Holmes is just a wonderful, eccentric, tormented character. Doyle pioneered the detective fiction genre, where the ostensible focus is on the plot but the strangeness of the detective and the little nuggets of character study thrown the reader's way is what keeps the pages turning.

Although, like most Holmes enthusiasts, I like the Jeremy Brett PBS series the best, my first cinematic Holmes was Basil Rathbone (I was an eleven-year-old insomniac and often watched old movies). The Rathbone series is set during the era when it was made, World War II, so I'm hardly a purist and I looked forward to seeing Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009).

The kiss of death in the film comes early on, when Holmes meets Watson's fiancee, Mary Morstan (the name, and little else about her character, adopted from the Doyle novel The Sign of Four). Holmes insults Mary by insinuating that she has been engaged before, and Watson is a second choice in such a debasing manner she throws a drink in his face. Although Holmes was uninterested in marriage and said "the fair sex is your department" to Dr. Watson, he was never OFFENSIVE to a woman, for no reason. Most of the critical praise for the film revolved around how 'brave' it was for director Ritchie and Holmes impersonator Robert Downey, Jr. to create such a kinesthetic, irritable Holmes, but within the stories, all of these elements are there (in "The Solitary Cyclist" Holmes shows off his boxing talents in a local pub and he is also a cocaine addict). However, Holmes does also have a strong sense of honor, in a very 'pure' almost Vulcan-like way (although I am not a Star Trek fan). The film shows Holmes glorying in violence, and he thinks about how he will disable the bruisers he fights (the film has numerous fight scenes) while the Holmes of the book was only violent in self-defense and preferred to use his wits, when able, rather than his fists.

All of this would be acceptable if the film was actually, you know--good. Most of it is a lot of satanic mumbo-jumbo revolving around an aristocrat using a cult to create an appearance of supernatural powers so he can smoke-bomb Parliament and take over the world. The end scene when Holmes reveals how the 'unnatural' magic was created by smoke, mirrors, and science is Scooby Doo, not Sherlock Holmes, and those of you who do see it--I defy you not to hear, in your heads, "why, you meddling kids..."

The lack of dialogue (another feature of the Doyle stories) is also another problem: other than a few quotes that reviewers thought were Ritchie's invention like, "data, data, Watson, I can't make bricks without clay," most of the film is SMACK BANG POP, rather than the verbal artistry that have made the stories so beloved for generations.

I also didn't understand the addition of character traits NOT in the story, such as the fact that Holmes, who often goes without food for an entire case, is shown to be an enthusiast for chip shops and bakeries while 'on the job' and making Dr. Watson fanatically tidy in a Felix Unger-style fashion (to Holmes' bachelor Oscar Madison).

And yeah, homoerotic subtext to Holmes' jealousy of Mary, blah, blah, blah (while carefully refashioning Irene Adler, who featured in one story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" as a love interest to not make teenage male viewers, the obvious audience for the film too UNCOMFORTABLE is another alteration).

The film broke box office records for a flick opening on Christmas, though, so all of this rage is for naught--it seems like Ritchie has created at least the beginnings of a franchise. Poor Holmes.