The script for what eventually became the simply awful comedy Holmes & Watson was first announced in 2008. After a couple of cast changes, the project was shot in 2017 and delayed twice before appearing as one of the least-merry films that could possibly have opened on Christmas Day, 2018. That decade weighs heavily on it; it feels years past its freshness date, and while I think most of what's objectionable about the movie would have been objectionable regardless of the release date, it could only possibly have helped to get it crapped out when its references felt only mildly dated.

The film isn't just a buddy comedy about the famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and his chronicler, friend, and assistant Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly); it's also a direct parody of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law and its 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Big enough hits in their day, to be sure, but I think nobody will disagree too much if I suggest that they've left very little mark on the pop culture landscape. Even so, both are scintillating, classical works compared to Holmes & Watson, which reteams Ferrell and Reilly 12 years after Talladega Nights and ten years after Step Brothers to stiffly play at the same busy comedy of loudness. I didn't find it funny then, and I find it positively embarrassing now, particularly with Holmes & Watson handing duties from Adam McKay to Etan Cohen, whose solitary previous work in that capacity was 2015's Get Hard, one of the most broadly-hated Ferrell starring vehicles.

If I were to say "Sherlock Holmes parody made in the 2010s", I imagine you could get most of the way through the script on your own, but for form's sake: the film opens with what will, retrospectively, turn out to be one of its best scenes, as working-class schoolboy Sherlock (Hector Bateman-Harden) arrives at boarding school, only to find that his earnestness and romanticism make him an easy target for bullies. Vowing to never feel a human emotion ever again, he turns himself into an observational genius who discovers the secret crimes of all his classmates and has, eventually, the entire student body expelled, allowing him years of honing his intellect until he becomes the genius known and beloved throughout all England. Flash-forward to 1896, and the master detective is faced with a crime so devious it taxes even his skills: someone is impersonating Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) while making threats against the life of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) and while Inspector Lestrade (Rob Brydon) of Scotland Yard is insistent on finding that legendary criminal, Holmes is confident that Moriarty is being used as a ruse by someone else to distract everyone, himself included, from the truth. So he and Watson bumble their way across London, making frenemies of an American woman, Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall), whom they simply cannot believe is actually a medical professional.

Cue plenty of jokes on all sorts of easy targets: the 2009 and 2011 films, with their evocation of weird Beautiful Mind-esque math genius Holmes; the great detective's cocaine addiction; the social backwardness of Victorian England (but only really its sexism); and for some reason the launch of the RMS Titanic, which took place 16 years later, but is still a major plot point. This is, somehow, the most singularly rankling part of the whole movie. It should come as little surprise that Holmes & Watson is fueled by anachronism: this was front-and-center in the ad campaign, which finds Watson inventing the selfie and the drunk text, among other jokes whose punchline is, in its entirety "let's use internet slang and 2010s pop culture references but written with brittle and old-fashioned words like they would have talked back in the 1890s". Or the extended agony of a joke in which Dr. Hart keeps saying variations on "In America, we would never do [thing that Donald Trump does every week]", as though pointing out over and over again that people in the 19th Century would never have predicted our current political swamp is somehow in and of itself structured like humor. And these jokes are of course tired bullshit, aiming for the lowest of the low-hanging fruit and still somehow not always hitting their targets.

Still, that's expected. Bringing in the Titanic for a bunch of random-ass jokes? That's just weird, as though Cohen, in writing the screenplay, made the calculated decision that as long as something was more than 100 years old, it all went into the same bucket of "late 19th Century Victorian shit". Or maybe it's not even calculated. Maybe it is legitimately just that Cohen figured that old was old, and went for it.  Either way, quite a few jokes in the film fall into exactly this gutter, suggesting a total disinterest in anything resembling a consistent, stable world. Which might sound ludicrous of me to bring up, but you need that - if you're going to break rules for the sake of funny, you first need to clearly indicate what the rules are to be broken. And Holmes & Watson can't do that, not in its historical context, not in its mystery plot, not in anything. It assumes simply that if Ferrell and Watson adopt funny voices that are at last vaguely close to "British", and say things loudly and get panicky a lot because they keep fucking up and destroying things, comedy will ensue somewhere along the line.

Surprise, surprise: it does not so ensue. Holmes & Watson is a grueling, persistently unamusing 89 minutes. It doesn't repeat itself, to be fair, but it somehow feels as though it does, with every single joke being told in exactly the same unsuccessful register. Only once does the film actually come alive: Alan Menken and Glenn Slater have been brought in to write a musical number, in which Holmes and Watson proclaim their friendship after all the turmoil they've been through, and it's still not funny, but at least a Menken musical number feels like something that has vitality. Nothing else does: not the lazy writing, and definitely not Ferrell and Reilly's one-note performances, the worst either man has ever been onscreen. It's a miserable thing to watch, and perhaps the only thing about it of any interest is how much it wrecked everybody's Worst Movies of 2018 lists with only one week left in 2018.