“Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick”
Being someone who never quite understood the appeal of Chevy Chase until his wonderful return to show business with television’s “Community”, it’s no surprise I never caught up with his more famous role in Fletch. Always finding an off-putting smugness where I was supposed to enjoy deadpan sarcasm, the urge to punch him in the face rather than laugh has lingered over the years. Sure, I enjoyed him in smaller roles like Caddyshack and have fond childhood memories of Funny Farm despite not remembering a thing about its plot, but to willingly endure an hour and half of Chase’s mug on screen was not something I cared to put myself through. However, no matter how begrudgingly I turned on the DVD player, I have to hand it to the friend that recommended I watch. This 80s gem is a winner.
Based on the eponymous novel by Gregory McDonald—who wrote nine works in the series before his death in 2008—Andrew Bergman‘s script delivers the premise for Chase to run with. I’d love to know how many of his subtle jabs and knee-jerk retorts were ad-libbed because the answer could realistically be all. The timing is impeccable to the point where I’m sure I missed a fair share of oneliners due to his mumbling and the film’s refusal to stop long enough to linger on words before rolling into the next line of dialogue or quirky gag. Complete with an earnest voiceover treating the character of Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher as though he was “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday looking to clean up the streets, one can’t help but love and hate this newspaper reporter’s awkward heroism barely masking his inflated ego.
The kind of guy who would willingly use his next “Jane Doe” column to blow the lid off a drug ring so he could spend his days lounging around the beach making friends with low-level dealers like Fat Sam (George Wendt) and Gummy (Larry Flash Jenkins), Fletch could never be likeable whether you find him fun to watch or not. Pushing his deadline back whenever possible, making his coworker Larry (Geena Davis in an early, wasted role) do his legwork, and taking a thousand bucks from the well-dressed Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) for simply going to his house to hear a proposition shows the sort of dedication he lacks. Watching the multiple disguises and dumb luck ability to talk his way out of sticky situations through an inability to shut-up shows why he’s the only journalist fit to tackle such hard hitting news.
And while we assume his fascination with Stanwyk’s request to murder him for fifty grand is legitimate due to a lack of scruples, watching him spend the newspaper’s money to hunt down leads is a effective excuse to place him in absurd situations for comedy. His new interest to discover why this wealthy pilot would want to die takes Fletch into a world of country clubs, hospitals and real estate offices above his pay grade before circling back to the beach where the two stories might converge. Arriving at each to interrogate or infiltrate, not a second is wasted as he graciously tips waiters through the account of an angry, entitled club member, finds himself in an autopsy room holding human organs, and running for his life from a Doberman Pinscher. I should have checked out early with my dislike of Chase’s face contorting into broad reactionary poses, but I found myself clamoring for more.
Some of the jokes are easy—making every doctor at the hospital have a name starting with Rosen—and others a testament to the cast’s willingness to engage in physical comedy no mater the cost. Scenes like Fletch taking the chair from a secretary in a neighboring desk while she stands momentarily before falling to the floor wrongly makes me hope she was truly unaware of what had happened. There is something very in the moment about many jokes that keep them endearing and funny despite very few having any real originality. We as an audience become so invested in the pratfalls that lame gags like bumping his head into a jail cell crossbar or getting trapped inside a low-hanging chandelier still elicit giggles when they have no right to do so. The film lulls you into a state of familiarity and goofy fun so you overlook any shortcomings.
The large supporting cast appears to be enjoying themselves too as M. Emmet Walsh goes into hysterics populating the hospital’s background, Richard Libertini goes all out with the usual bi-polar newspaper editor trope of turning from angry to joyous in the split second it takes to read a fresh new article for his front page, and Matheson exudes his trademark charisma still prevalent today with a recurring role in “Burn Notice”. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson‘s Gail Stanwyk becomes the only female character of note, but she grabs hold of the opportunity for some memorable moments with Chase and a complete lack of tennis skills. Things try to get serious too once Joe Don Baker’s seemingly affable police chief shows his true colors, but even his participation breeds laughter.
If you want to praise the script, Michael Ritchie‘s direction, or the myriad performances—go ahead. At the end of the day, though, Fletch is Chevy Chase’s baby. He’s become synonymous with the role for good reason, donning crooked teeth, a Los Angeles Lakers afro, and the great Baba au Rum get-up. No shame, a talent for crafting controversial fake names, and a cool demeanor under pressure make Fletch the kind of guy you’d love to know but never let closer than arms length—a character Chase was born to play. Perhaps my dislike of the actor stems from his having too much time for the news on “Saturday Night Live”. Give him a rapid-fire barrage of quick quips to keep him on his toes and therefore transform long gaps of his self-satisfied smirks into well-timed beats of dialogue and even a detractor like me can become a fan.