Right now, there’s a new Will Ferrell comedy playing on more than 2,000 screens, and yet it’s barely attracted any attention or commentary. Trailers for Holmes & Watson, a comic take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, starring Ferrell and John C. Reilly, were relatively scant. And pre-release buzz was nonexistent, due in part to Sony refusing to screen the movie for critics. The few critics who dutifully slogged out to theaters to cover the movie’s Christmas Day release have no words of encouragement that suggest Holmes & Watson is some overlooked gem. And the box-office take has been dire, with the film earning a bare $9 million in its opening week. Some broad studio comedies flop in their original releases, but later earn an appreciative cult on home video. Holmes & Watson, on the other hand, seems destined for a future of faint recognition and shrug-worthy disappointment. It’s an appropriate end to another negligible year for comedy at the movies.
As recently as five years ago, most years produced at least a couple of designated big comedy hits, like The Heat, We’re the Millers, Grown Ups 2, and Ferrell’s Anchorman sequel in 2013, or 22 Jump Street and Neighbors in 2014. But lately, the numbers have been dwindling. As 2018 winds down, the biggest straight-up comedy of the year is Night School, which has made around $100 million worldwide. That’s a respectable take for a modest $29 million film, but it’s still less than half the earnings of The Heat or Neighbors, even though Night School centers on the consistently popular Kevin Hart and the ascendant Tiffany Haddish, star of 2017’s only notable comedy hit, Girl Trip.
This downturn doesn’t mean comedy stars are completely out of the game. Hart and Melissa McCarthy are still consistent box-office draws, and doubtless Ferrell was a major lure for many of the filmgoers trying out Holmes & Watson. But many of the genre’s past kings have abdicated. Steve Carell is aggressively pursuing serious roles, most recently in Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen. Seth Rogen is focusing on producing, and has barely appeared on film screens over the past few years. Adam Sandler seems to be entirely focused on producing popular comedies for Netflix. Ferrell has been most dedicated to keeping the comedy faith, and he often seems at loose ends in movies like Holmes or 2017’s similarly unscreened The House. He’s committing to movies with big premise hooks, and ramshackle follow-through.
Two of 2018’s bigger (and best) studio comedies take a more egalitarian approach to their high concepts, depending less on a central comic superstar. Game Night surrounds mainstay straight man Jason Bateman with Rachel McAdams, Lamorne Morris, Sharon Horgan, and Jesse Plemons — familiar faces, but none of them major comedy stars. Kay Cannon’s Blockers mixes veterans Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena with younger newcomers. The less financially and creatively successful Tag also emphasizes its ensemble, which includes Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, Hannibal Buress, and Jon Hamm. (Given the familiar comedy tone, the absence of Jasons Bateman or Sudeikis in Tag is downright confusing.)
Stylistically speaking, some of these changes can be partially attributed to Ferrell’s generation of comedians. In stark contrast to the one-man-show vehicles Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey starred in at their peak, comedians like Ferrell, Sandler, and Ben Stiller tend to recruit friends and ringers, ceding a lot of shtick to their supporting players. This doesn’t always yield classic comedies, but Ferrell’s best movies have offered showcases for Carell, Paul Rudd, Kathryn Hahn, Michael Keaton, Adam Scott, and plenty of others. Ferrell seems particularly drawn to buddy comedies. The whole reason Holmes & Watson can sell his reunion with John C. Reilly is their onscreen history together, stemming from Ferrell and his cohort Adam McKay casting Reilly (not initially known as a comic performer) in Talladega Nights. Their expert use of actors like Reilly, Amy Adams, and Richard Jenkins probably encouraged out-of-the-box comedy casting choices like Game Night’s Plemons or Blockers’ Cena.
Blockers and Game Night aren’t as aggressively crazy (or sublimely smart-stupid) as a typical Ferrell/McKay comedy. Game Night has tighter, more farce-like scripting to go with its droll spoof of David Fincher movies. Blockers has a Judd Apatow mixture of raunch and heart. (Tag, meanwhile, aims for Apatow but winds up skimping on the comedy and upping the treacle.) Still, they’re a natural extension of how Ferrell and Apatow have both, in their own ways, reimagined studio comedies as more idiosyncratic and specific than smashes of yore like Bruce Almighty or The Hangover. McKay movies like Talladega Nights or The Other Guys have some action spectacle to imitate the genres they’re spoofing, but a lot of their biggest laughs come from setups as simple as dinner-table scenes or office conversations.
Many studio comedies have followed suit. Since the last major Ferrell/McKay opus in 2013, designated blockbuster movies have gotten more expensive, and the marketing push behind them has only gotten more aggressive. Meanwhile, the scope of mainstream comedies has shrunk. Audiences still go to the movies to laugh, but they seem increasingly content to get those laughs from the same place they get almost everything else: big-budget superhero movies.
This was especially true in 2018. Deadpool 2 has too much action and embedded comics mythology to count as a traditional comedy, but it’s very much a vehicle for the comic sensibility of both Ryan Reynolds and teenage comics fans. Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t as jokey as Deadpool, but it approximates a light comic tone. Even grimmer, darker superhero pictures like Avengers: Infinity War and Venom pride themselves on their moments of levity; superhero movies without substantial jokes are usually derided as oppressively humorless. Family-friendly animated blockbusters also borrow the rhythms of comedy, as movies like The Grinch and Ralph Breaks the Internet try to incite grown-up laughter, with mixed results. Cartoons and superheroes are flexible: they can bring in action and forge real emotion connections with the audience, while still drawing on the big sight gags and pratfalls that used to be the sole province of comedy films.
With Holmes & Watson, Ferrell returns to that more outlandish territory, Reilly in tow. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do there. In spite of the more aghast reviews, Holmes isn’t an outright crime against comedy. It’s agreeably silly, and sometimes appealingly slapsticky, compared to the talkier likes of Blockers or Game Night. It would be more refreshing, though, if writer-director Etan Cohen had any idea why 2018 needed a big, goofy spoof of the Sherlock Holmes stories, or what he was really spoofing, apart from some Guy Ritchie movies and the general notion of a super-intelligent detective. There are moments where the movie has fun with its well-appointed recreation of 19th-century London, like when it sends Holmes and Watson out for a wild night on the bad side of town, replete with casual stabbings and drunken telegramming. But more often, Holmes feels like a ghost of a movie, as if everyone involved is trying to re-create a decade-old great idea from the wisps of memory. (The film’s lengthy development time might have contributed here.)
For the most part, it’s gratifying that a movie like Holmes & Watson can be made to feel outmoded by scrappier (yet also much better-made) comedies like Game Night and Blockers. It probably wouldn’t hurt Ferrell if he followed his earlier example and scaled his projects back down — a process that helped Adam Sandler make his best outright comedy in ages this very year. The Week Of, another Netflix feature that seemed to play mostly to the Sandler faithful, didn’t get much attention when it appeared in April, but this Robert Smigel film is warm, funny, and specific to its Long Island setting. It’s a far cry from Sandler’s Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, which similarly felt far past its expiration date when it came out in 2015.
But there’s also a kind of satisfaction in seeing a broad comedy go big and boundlessly silly, and a vague disappointment that a team as formidable as Ferrell and Reilly can’t pull it off in Holmes & Watson. The movie holds fans in a bizarre state of anticipation, desperate for the chance to laugh at something very silly. This isn’t a call for more big-budget comedies smothered by special effects; in fact, more comparatively small, subversively specific comedies like Blockers and Game Night would be great. But it would be nice to see some variety in the genre, too, especially if that means some big swings for the fences. Good comedy has a way of exposing human weaknesses. Bad comedy has a way of exposing limitations.