Sunday, April 3, 2011

Not So Elementary, My Dear Wilder: "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" (1975)

In 1975, Gene Wilder, fresh from a series of classic Mel Brooks' films, decided to make his directorial debut with this stale semi-spoof.

Queen Victoria has given her Foreign Secretary a secret document that is promptly stolen from his safe. Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) and Dr. Watson (Thorley Walters) are called in, but decide to pretend to leave the country, then sneak back in, so they can investigate the theft undistracted. Sherlock leaves his lesser cases to his jealous younger brother Sigerson (Gene Wilder), who must deal with his own new-found sidekick Orville (Marty Feldman). Jenny (Madeline Kahn) is a mysterious chorus girl being blackmailed by opera singer Gambetti (Dom DeLuise) for a love letter she wrote, and wants Sigerson to get involved. Jenny is not really who she says she is, and the two Holmes brothers' paths cross as they follow their respective cases.

Despite a pretty stunning cast, the film is a downer. Wilder had such a great chance here, but aside from Kahn and DeLuise, his cast is lackluster to the point of looking bored. Much of his script seems inspired by Brooks (the off-color humor, the familiar actors), but most of it does not work- a tic laden Moriarty (Leo McKern), a confused and ultimately uninteresting case, and an unsure directorial hand sink it.

Although Americans Wilder and Kahn are the leads, neither try a British accent. I don't know if this was part of the joke, but it's just not funny. A skewering of Victorian morals and the Holmes stories could have been hilarious, but Wilder goes a different route. He makes Feldman a straight man, wasting such a great comic actor by giving him a couple of silly characteristics instead of a funny character. We are given no background about the relationship between Sigerson and Sherlock, except that Sigerson is jealous, so a whole sibling rivalry history is also ignored. Instead, Wilder spends too much time with badly directed action sequences (the carriage chase is one of those great missed blunders in cinema) and Mel Brooks-like goofball musical numbers.

The climax takes place during an opera, where Kahn and DeLuise shine. Both are very funny, and their interplay onstage is hilarious. At this point in the film, however, when Albert Finney (in a cameo) wonders aloud if this is all rotten or incredibly brave, I had an answer for him.

"The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" (a terrible title, since Sigerson never shows this intelligence or perceived superiority...possibly another missed joke) is disappointing. (* *) out of five stars.