the razzies

John C. Reilly Deserved Better Than a Razzie

John C. Reilly. Photo: Annapurna

Now that the Oscar noise has finally dissipated, it’s time to address John C. Reilly’s Razzie Award for the Worst Performance by a Supporting Actor in 2018 for Holmes & Watson. I think this “prize” is more shortsighted, more insensitive, and more appalling than any Oscars snub. To put it bluntly, the Razzies are dead to me.

This should have been the happiest professional year of Reilly’s life. It was certainly an artistic peak. He and his wife, Alison Dickey, bought the rights in manuscript to Patrick DeWitt’s eerie gold-rush novel, The Sisters Brothers, the saga of Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired to kill an inventor (Riz Ahmed) for reasons they don’t know and don’t (at first) care to. Reilly and Dickey courted Jacques Audiard, a defiantly noncommercial French director committed to depicting the various ways in which humans become detached from their humanity. Reilly took the second lead, the older brother, Eli, of Joaquin Phoenix’s spasmodically violent Charlie. In an interview I did with him, he spoke of what it meant — as a kid always told that he wasn’t so special — to be a sidekick, a second banana. There’s usually one visionary, he said, and one who follows along. He thought his mission as an actor was to explore the psyches of the followers, the also-rans.

Such as Oliver Hardy. Not long after The Sisters Brothers came the release of Stan & Ollie, in which Reilly played the rotund Hardy to Steve Coogan’s Stan Laurel. The film is set in the last year of Hardy’s life, when he and Laurel launch a comeback tour in Great Britain in the hopes of rekindling their film career. Line for line, beat for beat, scene for scene, it’s an exquisite piece of acting. Under layers of flab, Reilly seems naked. His Hardy is aging and overweight and with no particular writing gifts — his fate tied to the genius of Laurel, whom he once betrayed. Reilly conveys that helplessness, but the performance transcends self-pity. His Hardy comes alive as he and Coogan reenact the duo’s old stage routines. The years and the weight fall away. His Hardy is buoyant beyond reason, beyond reality. The performance is a testament to the joy of clowning.

The Sister Brothers bombed, of course, while Stan & Ollie got patronizing pats on the back from the few critics who remembered the great originals, but had zero awards traction. That Reilly voiced the title character in the Oscar-nominated smash Ralph Breaks the Internet went largely unremarked upon. All the media’s attention went to Holmes & Watson, which was released on Christmas day with no screenings for critics. The reunion of Reilly and Will Ferrell — whose chemistry in Step Brothers was convulsively funny — would be the worst humiliation of either actor’s career.

I’m on record as saying that the film is very, very bad:

Holmes & Watson … is camp. Worse: rhythmless camp. It has been consistently misdirected by its screenwriter, Etan Coen (no “h,” different guy), whose idea of editing is to make throwaway jokes broad and broad jokes bludgeoning. As a director, Coen commits comedy’s most cardinal sin: He gets between us and the performers.”

But for some peculiar reason I laughed a lot in the second half, along with the sparse Brooklyn Christmas Day audience. The zero rating on Rotten Tomatoes was big news that day, to the point that NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed me on December 26: I was the weirdo who’d had a few kind words, who’d lifted the film on Rotten Tomatoes to the single digits.

The fix, in any case, was in. The New York Times even dispatched a writer to a screening to determine whether Holmes & Watson was, like Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, a so-bad-it’s-good movie, oblivious to the fact that Ed Wood’s films are bad fun because they’re meant to be taken seriously. A comedy that doesn’t work will never give you the same kind of pleasure — if, that is, you take pleasure from so-called Golden Turkeys. I find most “so-bad-they’re-good” films claustrophobia-inducing, perhaps because I go to movies to expand my sense of what’s possible, not to get off on the ineptitude.

I’m not sure why Holmes & Watson is as clunky as it is, although I surmise that no one involved had any illusions. When I interviewed Reilly in early September of 2018, he sounded a note of caution while trying not to say too much. Don’t go in expecting Step Brothers, he said. Apparently having to do British accents made improvisation difficult for him and Ferrell — though the accents are so iffy it’s a wonder they felt obliged to stick to them. The movie might have worked. Etan Coen’s script has enough good bits to make you think it deserved a better director than first-timer Etan Coen.

The Razzies perform a valuable function, though in the last decade their voters have largely gone for low-hanging fruit. Of course, you could argue that all actors are low-hanging fruit, insofar as they’re dependent on directors and editors to protect them. But I’m not too upset when stars like Adam Sandler or Tom Cruise are singled out for ridicule because of how much power they wield. Cruise helped make The Mummy the atrocity that it was, reshaping and editing the project to suit his whims. That said, he was phenomenal the same year in the under-seen American Made, using his megalomania for good. Setting aside his connection to Scientology, he’s not such a villain. Most of Hollywood’s villains are behind the camera, safe from the Razzies’ mockery.

I wish Razzie voters were confident enough to go after movies that some people love. I’d have awarded all of them this year to the pretentious Suspiria remake, while regretting that M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass opened too late, in January. But I digress.

Let me say with some urgency: See The Sisters Brothers. It will make you uncomfortable, as it should, insofar as it centers on two boys poisoned by parental abuse who succumb too easily to the nihilism of their culture. See Stan & Ollie to understand how slapstick is akin to ballet — how its greatest practitioners are anti-ballerinas who lose the battle against gravity with grace. And for pity’s sake, see Ferrell and Reilly in Step Brothers if you haven’t, to savor what can happen (in rare cases) when gifted clowns are wound up and set loose with no mandate other than delighting themselves and their co-stars.

I like John C. Reilly a lot, but I didn’t write this piece because I think he’s a good guy. I wrote it because, well, before I met him, I could see that he works without ego, bringing a poignant self-effacement and bottomless soul to every project. He’s one of the treasures of American movies — and the best reason I know to razz the razzers.

John C. Reilly Deserved Better Than a Razzie