Deduce This

Old properties with new clothes: the giddy, gaudy Sherlock Holmes and the assolutamente mort musical Nine.

Things we learned on our way to looking up something else, Part 18,349: In‘s listing for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, one of the leading FAQs is: “Is Sherlock Holmes based on a book?” That’s a reasonable question.

Yes, dear Joshua and Madison, Holmes was indeed a literary character. He was created, as IMDB thoughtfully points out, way back in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If you wanted to, you could read one of the four novels or 56 short stories starring the brilliant English detective Holmes and his, uh, longtime partner, Dr. Watson. But it’s probably easier just to let director Guy Ritchie do the heavy lifting.

But remember that, unlike Conan Doyle’s dusty old books, the heavily advertised Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Holmes is primarily about a very small handful of things: men’s fashions, Victorian clutter, fistfights and explosions, and “period detail,” which in this case means London at its soot-blackened, Industrial Age grimiest, foul with spilled gin and rotting meat. Oh yes, one other thing: a whiff of homosexuality. Between Holmes and Watson. They don’t actually “do it,” but it’s in their eyes. Or maybe that’s only a bit of coal smoke.

Holmes (Downey, in splendid shape for a 44-year-old) is shown in his memorabilia/marginalia-crammed flat at 221B Baker Street, off Edgware Road between the Regent’s Park and Marylebone Station (all of this CGI, down to the beggars), performing the sort of odd experiments he’s famous for: firing pistols into the wall, ingesting strong drugs (ahem, Mr. Downey) to test their potency, and playing footsie with his pal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who often disguises herself in the furtherance of Holmes’ investigations.

Downey’s Holmes, in contrast to Basil Rathbone’s saturnine portrayal in the 1940s movies, is a bit of a randy, bare-chested sport — he boxes in fight-club-style bare-knuckle underground matches — as well as a clothes horse, at least in 21st-century terms. Shops all over Europe and the US are now festooned with neo-goth embroidered weskits, top hats, and old-school mufflers (left over from Harry Potter, no doubt), to tie in with this movie. No deerstalker caps allowed.

Meanwhile, Holmes’ slightly more reserved cohort in criminology, Dr. Watson (Law, cool as a cucumber), is in the process of moving out of the Baker Street flat he’s been sharing with Holmes. Got himself a fiancée. But there’s always time to go out on a case. Seems a cabal of spooky upper-class hoodoos led by the animal-eyebrowed Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, currently also on local screens as the bad guy in The Young Victoria) is trying to overthrow the government by means of witchcraft. And then they want to do the same to America. Got to put a stop to that.

Director Ritchie, handed a venerable, high-profile literary property after years of cranking out violent, guy-movie heist pics packed with menacing mockneys (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Revolver; RocknRolla), throws everything he knows into Holmes and Watson’s adventure, with the aid of writers Lionel Wigram, Michael Robert Johnson, and Simon Kinberg. Fisticuffs and more fisticuffs. Madcap chases through the artfully decked streets. Grotty secret laboratories and murky shipyards. Not a trace of Vinnie Jones. Holmes is a bit of a technology freak, 1890s division. Don’t tell James Bond.

As for that lingering gaze that passes between Holmes and Watson whenever they pause to reflect on their imminent parting, it follows along the general buddy-movie tone of most of Ritchie’s movies. These guys would much rather hang out with the other guys than with women — even a resourceful wench like Irene. At any rate, for the filmmaker once known as Mr. Madonna, metrosexuality should be par for the course.

Are you still with us, Joshua and Madison? If you’ve read any of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, you’ll know automatically who that shadowy, mysterious man in the carriage is: Austin Powers. Ho ho, just kidding. Not to put too fine a point on it, Sherlock Holmes is a crackling entertainment and a rich, hammy showcase for Downey, who looks like he’s having more fun than he has in anything since Chaplin. This would make a nice double feature with The Young Victoria — something for the ladies, something for the lads. Wear your frock coat and tell them Professor Moriarty sent you.

Let’s not all pile on at once, but Nine is really one of the worst films of 2009, a truly hideously ill-conceived piece of work. Where to start tearing it apart?

Why remake Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 in the first place? You’re just asking for trouble — or rather, Arthur Kopit (book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) were asking for it when they turned Fellini’s putatively autobiographical 1963 drama into a Broadway musical in 1982. Notorious director of cheese balls Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) only compounds the malaprop factor by, in turn, remaking the stage musical with the writing help of Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella.

Why, then, would anyone want to build a brand new schmaltzy wedding-cake musical on a film that already had a gorgeous score by the great Nino Rota? I defy anyone to hum any of Yeston’s songs on his or her way out of the theater. It can’t be done. You’ll forget each one as soon as it’s finished. As if in consolation, Marshall and Co. sprinkle random original Rota film music through the movie. Everyone’s using Rota’s Fellini tunes these days, so that’s nothing new.

Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t doing himself any favors in the Marcello Mastroianni role as the director of the film within the film, Guido Contini. It’s plain now that as an actor, Day-Lewis is only as good as his screenplay, and Nine‘s screenplay is weak all the way back to Fellini.

Famous filmmaker Guido is behind schedule with the writing of his new movie, Italia, and there are too many distractions of the Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and Sophia Loren variety. He has big regrets — he’s too lusty. So what? He may be scrawny and unkempt (he resembles Michel Piccoli more than he does Fellini) but he’s quite the ladies’ man. Guido’s got more girlfriends than the Tiber has rats.

The one standout among them — in fact the only reason to see this 500-kilo brick of gorgonzola — is Marion Cotillard as his wife, Luisa. Her “whorish” song and dance has all the wit and sophistication the rest of Nine tries for, but can’t quite grasp.


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