The opening of “Holmes & Watson,” the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, involves a boy kissing a donkey’s rear end.
Believe it or not, the movie, directed by Etan Cohen, then goes even more lowbrow. Its script is replete with masturbation jokes, a lengthy vomit scene and a bizarrely sensual chess match.
So the critical rejection of this film, which reimagines Sherlock Holmes (Ferrell) and his compadre, Dr. Watson (Reilly), from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books, as dundering fools, might have been expected. (It didn’t have advance screenings for critics, which is usually Hollywood code for “This isn’t one of our finest.”)
The initial reviews were not kind. Neither were subsequent ones. As of Sunday, Rotten Tomatoes rated it at 9 percent fresh, up from 0 percent from the initial batch. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg wrote that “smuggling in booze to dispel the sense of dull routine could only help.” Released on Christmas, the film took in $7.3 million over the weekend for an estimated total of $19.7 million in ticket sales. The movie’s budget was $42 million.
And yet, in spite of the terrible reviews, there I was on a rainy Friday in a Manhattan theater with about 20 other people waiting for the movie to start. But I went in with a different attitude from critics’: What if the movie was so terrible that it’s actually a great theatrical experience, à la Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”?
[Read our review of “Holmes & Watson”]
Here’s the thing: I’ve always loved bad movies. Really, loved them. But for a bad movie to be so terrible it’s redeemable, it must have certain characteristics, like unrealistic dialogue and canyon-size plot holes. The first “Mortal Kombat” movie? Good, even with the campy action scenes. “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”? Even better — poor Johnny Cage! “Star Trek Generations” is one of my favorite of the franchise, even though it nonsensically left Kirk to die under a bridge.
The telltale sign of a good bad movie: Do you find yourself laughing at all, and especially when you’re not supposed to? Every gruesome scene from “Street Fighter” is comical to me. If you’re scrolling through channels and the movie is on, would you stop and ironically watch it? If I come across 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.,” I’m hoping to catch the scene of Goombas appearing in an elevator. (Yes, there’s a trend with movies based on video games.)
And a good bad movie must not take itself too seriously. On that front, “The Godfather: Part III” fails.
The gold standard for bad movies that became good is “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” directed by Edward D. Wood Jr in 1959. Its star, Gregory Walcott, said that the script, about aliens attacking Earth by resurrecting the dead, “made no sense.” The film was to feature Bela Lugosi, but he died before shooting began, so Wood used unrelated footage he’d shot of the horror star — and a noticeably taller body double.
Despite — or because of — its continuity errors, low production value and absurd dialogue, the film became a cult favorite. It now has a 67 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes because it is “unintentionally hilarious” and displays “staggering ineptitude,” the site says.
With “Holmes & Watson,” some audience members hated it so much that they put up social media posts saying they had walked out before the film finished. Todd Moye, a history professor at the University of North Texas, told me, “The projector conked out midway through the showing I took my family to and I got my money back. Luckiest break I’ve ever gotten in a movie theater.”
When asked by email about reported walkouts, representatives for AMC and Regal, two big theater chains showing the movie, perhaps unsurprisingly did not respond.
At the Friday showing, the film began with an ominous sign: It didn’t. After a projector malfunction that left the audience in the dark for about 20 minutes, we finally watched Watson disguising himself as a manure salesman in one scene and, in another, conducting a, shall we say, sexy autopsy alongside his crush. (At least his crush wasn’t the body.) Not done yet, Watson later lactates. It’s not like Holmes fares any better, with lengthy attempts at urination humor.
Two men walked out midway through the showing. I bounded out after them to ask them why. Both declined to be interviewed. One simply said, “Going to go watch a football game.” (Purdue and Auburn were facing off.)
I did find some endearing moments, like a catchy musical number written by the Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken and the lyricist Glenn Slater, sung by Ferrell and Reilly near the movie’s end. There are fun cameos, including from the actor Billy Zane and the wrestler Braun Strowman.
And two bits got chuckles out of me: one when Holmes put on a “Make England Great Again” hat. (There are several references to President Trump and the plight of American democracy.) The other was an anachronistic spin class that took place in a gym.
After the movie ended, I ran into Manny Alvarez and his wife, Reizel, who were visiting from Miami. Let’s call them the 9 Percent.
“I loved the movie — I thought it was funny,” Reizel Alvarez said. She also said it was her birthday.
“It was interesting,” Manny Alvarez chimed in. “I liked the fact that they were comparing their democracy and comparing it to what we have in the United States. I thought that was kind of cute.”
Then there was Andy Sanchez and Hunter Freeman, a married couple who were fans of Ferrell and Reilly’s past works, like “Step Brothers.” They went into “Holmes & Watson” knowing about the bad reviews.
“Honestly, I didn’t really like it,” Andy Sanchez (literally) yawned as he told me. Freeman said she fell asleep inside the theater. “I still wanted to give it a shot because Will Ferrell, I give him the benefit of the doubt,” Sanchez said.
To me, “Holmes & Watson” lacks ironic rewatchability because it actually tries (and fails) to be funny. But I wondered what this couple thought: Was the movie so bad it might be good?
“I know what you mean,” Sanchez said. “This isn’t one of them.”