An Elementary Holmes

Young Sherlock Holmes Directed by Barry Levinson At the Sack Charles

Spielberg went to outer space. Spielberg went to Egypt. Spielberg went to suburbia. Now, drunk with success and hubris, Spielberg has imposed his high-tech humanity on the myths of another age. The Sherlock Holmes stories, the embodiment of understated, subtle Victorian British refinement, come at us with all the sophistication of an Indiana Jones bullwhip in Young Sherlock Holmes, which is guaranteed to hit the jackpot this Christmas season.

There is no mistaking this movie as a Speilberg creation, even if the mass-market messiah is only one of three executive producers listed in the seemingly endless movie credits. Holmes is almost a Spielberg parody. Outrageously expensive special effects trot across the screen screaming aloud, "We cost millions to make you piss in your pants," as terminally cute characters engage in chaste romance and enormous props explode and collapse in a display of Hollywood consumerism so grotesque they make The Blues Brothers Movie look like a college thesis project.

Spielberg and flunky Chris Columbus--who also wrote Gremlins and Goonies (see accompanying story)--have not expanded the modest vision of past Holmes films and the original Doyle stories to fill the epic scope required for Spielberg mega-effects. They have stomped all over the original, creating not a Holmes aided by millions in props and special effects, but a Holmes pulverized by orgasmic Spielbergisms that make anything the hero does seem thoroughly boring.

This movie is so busy rushing about spending money and amazing us that it has no time for emotion. Nicholas Rowe's Holmes has only seconds to weep for his dead mentor and love interest before tripping off to participate in some or other breathtaking spectacle of modern cinema.

Certainly, Speilberg's movies are exciting and amusing, and Holmes is no exception. The tricks and cutesy antics in Holmes are now archetypes, engraved in our minds from E.T. and Gremlins and irrelevant in the context of a 19th century Victorian detective drama.

Cute fuzzy creatures come to life, the kids magically fly through the air, evil is conquered when the hero learns to believe in himself, and we are living another high-tech sitcom from the suburban psyche of Spielberg and Lucas (whose firm had a part in the film's extensive special effects).

For all his success and talent, Spielberg's weaknesses are prominently displayed in this foray beyond the safe climes of thrill-a-minute B-movie homages and suburban kiddie flicks. He is a craftsman, not an auteur, and one hopes his artistic imperialism will not cause him to stomp all over Anglo-Saxon culture's other golems.

That said, the movie is a model of technical perfection. Plot strands are neatly tied, Holmes and Watson are elegantly formed to fit neatly into what we already know of their future careers, and an absurdly pristine romance is thrown in to hint at Holmes' dissolute personality and later flirtation with drug use.

But Holmes is also sanitized in a way that robs this film of the deliciously dark underside that dominated Doyle's work and, in films, the wonderful Seven Percent Solution. Holmes here is an adolescent Bond armed with a quiverfull of trademark one-liners and an evanescent girlfriend to give him something to worry about.

Perhaps it is sour grapes to argue with the pervasive sense of fun and abandon that characterizes Holmes and has been the hallmark of Spielberg's past work. To his credit, Spielberg has not asked to be taken seriously as an artist and he delivers entertainment and good will like no one since Frank Capra. But movies like Holmes scream nouveau riche. There is never room for understatement, never a scene or effect down-played. Everything must be the most expensive, the most elaborate. Spielberg has always been exhausting to watch, but never emotionally fulfilling. How can we care about the characters when the moviemakers are not willing to give them enough time to develop a personality before they are hurled into a pit of tap-dancing killer iguanas with a predilection for John Williams orchestration?

The Doyle stories, for all the fawning appreciation of the author in the film's concluding credits, serve as no more than a dramatic exoskeleton inside which Spielberg can throw his expensive toys and his retro-vision of adolescents as idealistic voyagers in the harsh world of adult cynicism and nay-saying. This union does not work with an English accent or with a character that could never tell himself "If I just believe in myself it will all come true" and then bicycle over the moon.

One day, Spielberg will decide to make a movie that actually cares about its subject. Hopefully, that day will come before we get tired of his special effects. I, for one, am starting to get bored. . . quick, somebody blow up an Egyptian pyramid!