[I]The Seven-Per-Cent Solution[/I], directed by Herbert Ross ([i]The Last of Sheila[/i], [i]The Goodbye Girl[/i]), with a script written by Nicholas Meyer ([I]Time After Time[/I], [I]Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan[/I], [I]Star Trek: The Voyage Home[/I], [I]Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country[/I]) based on his own bestselling novel, takes a potentially fascinating ?high-concept? premise (i.e., what if Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character, had met Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis), and, at least for the first hour, manages to rise above this brilliant conceit, offering audiences a human, seriously flawed Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, the first hour awkwardly segues into a banal, sub-par kidnapping mystery, which mars an otherwise entertaining exploration of a speculative scenario.
As [I]The Seven-Per-Cent Solution[/I] opens, Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) has fallen on difficult times. His caseload has dropped to zero, his friend and colleague Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) has married and has moved away, and his cocaine use (7% cocaine, 93% water, administered frequently via syringe) has turned into full-blown addiction (Holmes? cocaine use is based on Arthur Conan Doyle?s source material). Holmes has barricaded himself in his apartment, apparently in fear of an attack by Dr. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier, in a small role). His wild, unfounded accusations point to a personality (and identity) in crisis. Watson, of course, is concerned with Holmes? mental and physical health, both of which are being damaged by his cocaine abuse. Holmes refuses to leave London, afraid that his absence will allow Dr. Moriarty to engage in unrestrained criminal behavior.
After coming across an article dealing with cocaine addiction written by a certain doctor in Vienna, Dr. Watson decides upon a bold course of action: draw Holmes? to Vienna as part of a case involving Dr. Moriarty. To that end, he obtains Dr. Moriarty?s assistance. Dr. Moriarty, far from being a criminal mastermind (at least on the surface), is a gray-haired, about-to-retire mathematics professor. Moriarty complies, if ostensibly to remove Holmes as a nuisance from his life. The elaborate ruse works. Dr. Watson and Holmes find themselves not just in Vienna as the end point of their journey, but right in the middle of Dr. Sigmund Freud?s (Alan Arkin) office. Finally aware of the charade, Holmes threatens to bolt Vienna and return to London. Convinced by Dr. Watson and Freud of the need to confront his addiction, Holmes relents, and begins to undergo treatment. Treatment in this case is two-fold: he must stop using the seven-percent solution immediately (no gradual withdrawal allowed) and undergo psychoanalysis.
As Holmes begins his fevered withdrawal, the director, Herbert Ross, indulges in stereotypical imagery and camerawork, including smoky lenses, handheld cameras, and for the imagery, snakes (apparently Holmes is deathly, fetishistically, afraid of snakes). The talking therapy leads, inevitably, predictably, and, not surprisingly, simplistically to Holmes? childhood, and, of course, a severe childhood trauma. While Holmes comes close to confronting and integrating this childhood trauma (the audience only sees a glimpse, a boy walking up a staircase, before cutting back to present-day events), the content of that trauma is postponed until the denouement, after [I]The Seven-Percent Solution[/I] veers into mystery/thriller territory.
The mystery, coincidentally enough, involves the disappearance of one of Freud?s patients, Lola Deveraux (Vanessa Redgrave), an entertainer recovering from her own cocaine addiction. Her reappearance after an escape from her captors, leads Holmes, Freud, and the now superfluous Dr. Watson on a search for the kidnappers. In what appears to be a digressive subplot, Watson accompanies Freud to an athletic club, where Freud is confronted by the anti-Semitic remarks of the Baron von Leinsdorf (Jeremy Kemp). Freud challenges to him to a contest, an indoor tennis match. Returning to the main plotline, Lola Deveraux disappears a second time, sending Holmes, Freud, and Watson through the streets of Vienna, a brief stop in a high-class brothel, and an extended chase by train toward the common border with Turkey. The villain is, of course, unmasked, his motivations explained, and Holmes rises to the challenge, a sword duel on top of a fast-moving train.
Unfortunately, the mystery has little of the ingenuity audiences familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle?s stories have come to expect. Ross and Meyer telegraph the identity of the villain, as well as his motivation for kidnapping Lola Deveraux far too early in the film. The clues are obvious, the conclusions to be drawn from the clues too simplistic. As a result, the audience is always a step or two ahead of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. The weak mystery plot is only one of several problems, however. Once Freud enters the film, Dr. Watson becomes a redundant character, serving no narrative purpose. Sadly, Robert Duvall?s taciturn, understated performance, as well as his problems with an English accent, does little to counter Watson's redundancy as a character.
Equally problematic is Ross and Meyer?s reliance on a pop culture version of psychoanalysis: find the childhood trauma, bring that trauma into the light, and (instant) recovery follows. Once the mystery solved, and the characters safely ensconced back in Vienna, Freud uses a bit of hypnosis on Holmes. The revelation of the childhood trauma is, alas, as weak as the mystery that precedes it. Problem solved, Holmes is healed, ready to return to London and his role as the ?world?s greatest detective.? Audiences, however, aren?t as likely to find this final scene persuasive. Hopefully, future iterations of the Holmes character will venture closer into psychological realism, an opportunity clearly missed by Ross and Meyer in their interpretation (and extrapolation) of the Holmes character.