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By Michael Calleri

There was a time when Guy Ritchie was an interesting movie director and Robert Downey Jr. was a very interesting actor. A smattering of success and a lot of tabloid fame changed both of them. Ritchie married Madonna; Downey made drug abuse headlines.

Then both men had an epiphany. Why not milk the publicity for all it was worth? Why not, for lack of a better phrase, "sell out"? No one faults them for going after money. That's never an issue with me. More power to them. But don't pretend that what you're doing in the motion picture business remotely resembles anything called quality.

This lack of quality is evident throughout "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows," the follow-up to 2009's "Sherlock Holmes." In movie-making time, two years between the first production and its sequel is not long. The new film looks thrown-together. There's a gray murk wafting throughout the movie, as if the production team decided that an almost perpetual haze would hide the weaknesses in the production. Not even Sherlock Holmes himself could solve the mystery of why Ritchie and Downey get away with desecrating the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But let's not bemoan the possibilities. Instead, let's review what's on the screen. In the first film, Ritchie turned Holmes into an action hero, albeit one who mumbled and seemed to be obsessed with three things: his partner Dr. Watson, the sex act, and the sex act as carried out by Dr. Watson. Downey as Holmes was -- and still is -- a mincing mess, a petulant bore who couldn't open a paper bag, let alone find his way around one.

The new movie is nothing special. It's a series of set pieces in which Watson, as played by Jude Law, is compelled to deal with Holmes' weird vibrations. There's violence, but the silliness throughout undercuts it. Ritchie has placed a lot of faith in Downey. Law has less to do, but he still has the better part because there's a sense of humanity about his Watson. This is because Law is a better actor than Downey and dares to create a character.

Ritchie is more concerned about how flashy his directorial work comes across, letting the actors create their own myths. Law understands underplaying. Downey is allowed to be manic and to steal attention. This willingness to tromp all over the other cast members becomes just one more addiction in his life. As usual, Ritchie loves fast edits and freeze frames. He believes that stopping the action means he's giving Holmes time to ponder how to get himself out of a predicament. For the record, the quick cuts and slow motion are old hat.

Ritchie's technique gets in the way of the story, which is remarkably unoriginal. The married screenwriting team of Michele and Kieran Mulroney seem to have brought out the action-movie design book and selected a sampling of thematic swatches from the James Bond films. Both are bereft of meaningful credits. They have Holmes getting into fist fights, after which he and the disapproving Watson will discuss what went on. Then a clue pops into Holmes' head. This happens more than once, and it becomes tiresome. Meanwhile, Holmes is still jealous of Watson's love life. The assistant is married to Mary (Rachel McAdams), whom Holmes will throw off a speeding train.

There is villainy in the form of Jared Harris' Professor Moriarty, an arms merchant who wants to start a world war and sell the ruling cliques of 1890s Europe the weapons with which they can destroy themselves. There's a snowbound chess match and a hint as to what may happen in the next sequel. Huddled in the background of this lumbering exercise are additional performances that have unmet potential. Stephen Fry is Mycroft, Sherlock's brother, and Noomi Rapace is a gypsy with not much of a secret. Neither gets a chance to shine because the over-the-top Downey, with his ludicrous British accent, has chosen clown-car buffoonery over teamwork.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows" neither advances our understanding of Holmes, nor presents him in an entertaining manner. In fact, the entire exhausting exercise is rather dispiriting.

"Young Adult" is a movie about personal responsibility that cuts straight to the bone. It contains three superior performances. One is from Charlize Theron as a woman who is mean-spirited and miserable. Another is from a character actor named Patton Oswalt as a loser in life who unexpectedly finds the most beautiful woman in the room interested in what he has to say. The third comes courtesy of Patrick Wilson, an actor who might seem bland, but is a vital necessity in films with dramatic tension. He is adept at playing the good guy, the stolid breadwinner, the earnest husband. If he doesn't "do" nice to perfection, if you don't care about what happens to him, the movie falters.

Theron plays a 30-something writer of novels for young adults. She has left her small Minnesota town for the bright lights of the big city, in this case Minneapolis. She is tired of her job and drowns herself in drink. She has a brittle, unforgiving personality, a chip on her shoulder, and lives in an apartment that is as messy as her outlook on everything she encounters. One day she receives an e-mail announcing that her high school boyfriend is the proud father of a new baby. Wife and child doing fine. He's played by actor Wilson. So Theron goes back to her hometown with one intention: To break up Wilson's marriage.

The stark drama has flashes of jaundiced humor, especially once Theron encounters Oswalt's character, a sad, lonely fellow who was the fat kid bullied in high school. He has a permanent limp from one abusive episode. The two become friendly as they share stories of misery and discontent. Much of their mutual interest in each other takes place over drinks in a bar.

The superb "Young Adult" is smartly directed by Jason Reitman, and unerringly written by Diablo Cody, who has a keen ear for how people talk. Both understand the human condition and its frailties. Their movie tells us unnerving things about the complexity of relationships. It's one of the best films of the year.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec 20, 2011