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Friday, March 12, 2010
Elementary, my dear stud
By KAORI SHOJI
As with most other things in the modern world, "Sherlock Holmes" is kindly adapted to fit the "it's for everyone" format — you don't have to be an expert on Victorian London, on the whereabouts of Baker Street, on who Dr. John Watson was — or any of those elementary issues. (By the way, that famed line "elementary, my dear Watson" appears only very rarely in the original "Sherlock Holmes" books.) You don't even need a sense of history at all, apart from perhaps, that this is a time period when Holmes — the greatest consulting detective of the late 19th century, albeit a fictional one — couldn't Google his problems or call up Watson on his iPhone, like, whenever.
Directed by Guy Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch"), this "Sherlock" has a distinctly contemporary feel; it's modish in a way that's laughably fake and awesomely sexy. In this, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) strides through London like a seasoned model during Fashion Week, a perfect balance of elegant, physical ennui and urbane braininess. In the stories first penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the first, titled "A Study in Scarlet," appeared in 1887), Holmes is a man who craved mental stimulus like other men crave food and water. That trait is echoed in Downey Jr.'s Holmes with a 21st-century slant. This Sherlock is all for solving intellectual puzzles, but he also insists on looking and dressing like a Bohemian stud muffin, and if he forgoes food it's probably because he's counting calories. In one scene Holmes wears shades (my bet is Oliver Peoples) combined with a snug, Prada- esque jacket — how's that for authenticity?
But then irreverence is the order of the day, and ignorance is welcomed in the open arms of idiot-proofed accessibility. Ritchie's film is a wonderful equalizer, seating snobbish, meticulously informed Sherlockians at the same table with people who have no idea, but sense (quite rightly) that the whole Downey Jr./Jude Law (as Watson) team-up is downright cool.
Appropriately, the story is so loosely based on the Doyle books that it positively needs suspenders to hold it up. Instead of the many deliciously quirky problems laid at the doors of 221b Baker Street (where Holmes and Watson lived in housematey bliss until the doctor's marriage) involving family wills and strange, Victorian fancies (the "Red-Headed League" anyone?) the film concentrates on one case and one villain, a Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and it all revolves around what has become a familiar modern-day tragedy: "The death of civilization as we know it."
Not that this is a bad thing per se. Back in the day, Doyle was always prefacing Holmes stories with names of alluringly mysterious cases that never made it to print, consequently bothering the hell out of devoted readers awaiting the next Holmes installment. So the author would, perhaps, have winked at Ritchie and the writing team of Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham taking blatant liberties with his material — throwing in black magic rituals, Jack the Ripper-like serial murders and terrorism vs. homeland security issues — unceremoniously into a high-speed blender. The result is a busy, cacophonic affair that avoids boredom and introspection like the bubonic plague. This is all in perfect keeping with the spirit of the original Holmes: that detective so hated to be bored he preferred to coke himself up rather than suffer an hour of intellectual lethargy, much to the distress of Watson.
Speaking of which, the Holmes-Watson relationship is the most intriguing component in the film, offset by the presence of temptress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to complete the triangle. In the books, Irene was the only woman who ever managed to touch Holmes' heart (he kept her photograph stashed in his desk). In the movie, the detective keeps his long-lashed gaze mainly on Watson. "I would appreciate your presence by my side" says Holmes with feigned matter-of-factness. But when his housemate announces his imminent marriage and subsequent departure from their Baker Street digs, Holmes practically has a jealousy- infused meltdown. Sizzling moment, there. The element of camp — always a subtle, teasing subtext to the Holmes stories, is played out here with magic- marker underlines accompanying every innuendo. And when Irene suggests coyly to Holmes: "What if we trusted each other?" it's plain painful — this is a woman making her moves on the totally wrong guy. With those shades and the buff bod and that gorgeous boho wardrobe though, you can't blame her for trying.