PG-13, which is an odd choice. There's no nudity, but some talk about impregnating someone. There are weirdly homophobic concepts in the movie, but the violence is pretty minimum overall. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes stories, there are dead bodies, but these dead bodies are killed off camera. There's some scant clothing by the female lead, but all of this is pretty tame.
DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
Do you know how frustrating it is trying to convince someone else that one of your favorite directors is one of the greatest directors of all time only to watch a stinker directed by that guy? I know. Billy Wilder's later films have never been considered his gold standard. On top of that, a lot of people really like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It isn't an abysmal film. It just isn't Billy Wilder genius. Unfortunately, it also isn't "Sherlock Holmes" genius (pun intended) either.
We got Filmstruck. I like the idea of Filmstruck a lot right now, especially from an academic perspective. For those not in the know, Filmstruck is TCM and the Criterion Collection's streaming service. It has a bunch of special features and curated collections, which makes it super excited to learn about an individual's work or a movement in film. Because I was preaching Billy Wilder, I got really excited to watch a Wilder that I hadn't seen. I'm a moron. Always pick something safe, like Ace in the Hole, to blow someone's mind. The thing is, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss claim that this movie was their inspiration for their Sherlock. At first, I wondered how that went. I love Sherlock but didn't really care for this one. Honestly, I was bored silly because it was disjointed and led to some of my least favorite Sherlock Holmes tropes. I can't believe that Moffatt and Gatiss would have misspoken that off the mark, so I thought about it. The introduction of the movie is the one that makes the most sense with their statement. This is a Sherlock Holmes who is at odds with his own fame. He is still cocky and still self-destructive. He's still a genius. But he, to some degree, knows that he can't live up to the godlike expectations placed upon him by the works of Dr. Watson. I think that's what I really like about the new Sherlock show and I like the way that it is explored in the TV show. But this movie only really touches on that element of fame. The odd thing is that it is titled The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. For a long time in the movie, it has a hard time deciding what it wants to be. The title implies that this will be an introspective picture. There really is no need for a mystery. Rather, the title and the first twenty minutes set up for a story about a man who has to deal with unwanted fame and expectations that may be considered unfair. But then that entire element is kind of dumped for what could be viewed as fairly blah. It introduces a mystery that is frankly pretty dumb. It exchanges the only thing that separates this from other Sherlock Holmes narratives and embraces the genius Sherlock Holmes on another case with Dr. Watson. I want to talk about that in a second and I'm sure that I'll probably get back to that. But before it even introduces this thread, it has this entire mini-storyline that doesn't make a lick of sense.
Immediately after the first act, Holmes and Watson go to the ballet. They meet some very over-the-top stereotypes of Russians. In this rather long scene may have failed the Chekov's Gun sequence monumentally, the prima ballerina offers to pay Sherlock Holmes with a Strativarius in exchange for his sperm. She wants Sherlock to have a child with her because he is a genius. In this sequence, there's some very 1970s attitudes about homosexuality and Sherlock implies that he and Dr. Watson are romantically engaged. Dr. Watson, who is having the time of his life oogling the rest of the cast of Swan Lake, is humiliated and accuses Holmes of slander. (Also, I thought Watson was married.) In what appears to be an indication that Holmes is telling the truth, leading to some questions that appear to take the film in yet another completely opposite direction, Holmes eventually reveals that it was a ruse. It is implied that these characters would come back into play later in the film. They don't. Not at all. This entire sequence is just a scene that absolutely does not belong in the movie. Part of the thing that really pulls it out of the film is that the whole conversation is based on a lie. There are these emotions that are developing about these characters. There's a hint of vulnerability and then it is simply snatched away. If the story is called The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the characters talk about Sherlock's emotions, why is everything a lie? I'm chalking a lot of this up into weak writing, but the alternative is that there is no private life to Sherlock Holmes. That means that the entirety of the movie has to be about the mystery and that the film is just poorly named. But then why take up thirty-to-forty minutes of the movie having Sherlock Holmes really doing nothing but hitting up some Sherlock Holmes tropes. The structure of the first two acts is aimless.
It is only halfway through the film that the actual inciting incident happens. I didn't think that there was going to be a central mystery to this film, but it does show up a little before the middle. The problem is that the mystery doesn't live up to the rest of the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. (Say that three times fast.) This is a movie mystery. There's no real thought. My wife is pretty intense about mysteries. She loves solving them before it is actually revealed. I tend to offer my theories. I'm right a lot of the time, but Lauren is just aces at these stories. We both watched the movie and didn't throw out any theories. Okay, I threw out one and it was dead on. This was early on. Lauren never fought me on it. It was stupid. The mystery is not at all engaging. It is actually part of the Sherlock stories that I don't like. I don't like when the answer is larger than life. Sherlock Holmes mysteries thrive on nuance and the human condition. Rather, Wilder and company wrote this epic tale that affects all of England. There is this attitude of patriotism that comes from British properties. It would be seen quite clearly in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me when James Bond parachutes with the Union Jack. There's a need to tie Sherlock Holmes into these big stories. I think that the Robert Downey Jr. films kind of do the same thing. Holmes works best when there is a personal mystery. I don't need him saving the Crown. I need him to save that one vulnerable person. If the film has the need to raise the stakes, save Watson. I don't really need him to be another protector of the realm. I just want him solving creepy mysteries that involve murder. This one takes historical fiction to a level that I'm really uncomfortable with. The thing is, I wanted to get on board. I'm the one who picked this movie. I'm the one who preached Wilder. The next thing is the worst thing about the movie.
Billy Wilder normally makes me guffaw when he does funny. I'm sorry to those people who may criticize me for liking Some Like It Hot or The Apartment. There are some problematic narratives in those movies, to be sure. But I genuinely laugh. This movie has no idea what it wants to be. Filmstruck labels it as comedy, adventure, mystery. That can work. I have no problem. Those tags would probably describe Hot Fuzz and I love that movie. But this movie doesn't lean heavily into any of those categories. Rather, it wants all three instead of developing a rich flavor. Hot Fuzz is fundamentally a comedy that gets its mystery and adventure right. This movie doesn't get any of its elements correct. I think I laughed once in this movie, and I kind of feel like it was a pity laugh. I hate pity laughs. (For more thoughts on pity laughs, listen to my podcast episode about Disenchantment season one.) Perhaps Billy Wilder was just getting older. Maybe there wasn't the passion behind this project like his other work. But this movie just feels like a mess. I don't hate the casting. I think that Christopher Lee as Mycroft is inspired. That being said, both Sherlock and Watson are B+ versions of the characters. They are hitting many of the same beats that other Sherlocks and Watsons have done. They kind of look the part and that's the only thing that makes them believable enough to continue watching. I kept wondering what Robert Stephens had done and this might be his largest role. It just seems to be an okay, one-note bit. I don't blame him. There's not a lot to work with here and that's just a bummer. I watched a video about Hollywood's obsession with relaunching public domain characters every few years and this is a prime example of a studio film that simply wants to capitalize on nostalgia. I mean, I picked it just for that reason. I thought that Sherlock Holmes couldn't have been that bad. It wasn't THAT bad, but it wasn't that good either.
There are plenty of ways to watch Sherlock Holmes. This character has more wins than losses when it comes to storytelling and this is a guy who really doesn't like the RDJ franchise. There are also a ton of great Billy Wilder movies out there as well. Filmstruck owners, unless you are a completionist, avoid this one. I know many reviewers thought this movie was better than I'm making it out to be. But the worst thing about this movie is that it is boring and unfocused.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.