|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 19 August 1998|
Gregory McDonald held back selling Hollywood the rights to his "Fletch" until Chevy Chase and others began coaxing him with the promise that the film would be faithful to the novel. And surprisingly enough, Fletch (but not Fletch Lives) really does follow the McDonald style reasonably closely. Even Chase plays about two-thirds of the movie straight, keeping the wisecracks in line with Fletch's ironically playful character. In the other third, Chase insists on trotting out his clumsy gags -- completely out of character for Fletch -- and tossing in lame, off-target wisecracks. Enjoy the film for what it does right, which is most of it, and forgive it for the blunders -- which, unfortunately, dominated the sequel. (A planned third in the series was never made.)
Irwin Fletcher is an investigative reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper, doing muck-raking exposes under the by line of Jane Doe. As the movie opens, Fletch is involved in trying to find the source of drugs which have been plaguing the beach at Santa Monica. He's undercover posing as an addict himself -- and is surprised when the wealthy Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) approaches him with a more than unusual proposition: he assumes Fletch is really the beach bum-addict he's pretending to be. He wants Fletch to kill him, he says, and he's willing to pay big bucks for it.
This rouses Fletch's investigative curiosity, and he begins poking around, while fending off demands from his editor (Richard Libertini) that he turn in the story on the drugs at the beach. While trying to find out if Stanwyk really is, as he claims, dying of bone cancer, Fletch meets Stanwyk's estranged wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), and is attracted to her. He's surprised when he's rousted by no one less than the police chief, Karlin (Joe Don Baker), and eventually learns that both areas of inquiry -- the drugs and Stanwyk's strange request -- are linked.
Michael Ritchie began his career very well with Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile and The Bad News Bears, but since then, has chosen one lousy property after another -- and for the most part, didn't even do those very well. Though it's basically rather ordinary, Fletch is one of Ritchie's better later movies -- but it could have been directed about this well by any studio hack.
Chase is both the biggest virtue and the biggest defect in Fletch. He's an appealing, even charming actor when he isn't working too hard, and he really can play roles straight. Though he's a reporter, Fletch is, of course, the classic American Private Eye, the dogged investigator who is never as crooked as he likes people to think he is. This private eye is always quick with a sharp line, always has an eye for the women, and ultimately finds himself on the verge of getting in over his head. With his wise-guy grin and cocked eyebrows, this role fits Chase very well, and much of the time, we believe in him as Fletch.
But the rest of the time, it's Saturday Night Live all over again (and again and again and again). Chase evidently decided that he had to be true to his fans (and he actually had them then), so he keeps throwing in those out-of-place wisecracks and lapses into clumsiness (like sticking a straw up his nose) -- which traits of Chevy Chase, not of Irwin Fletcher. In the novels, Fletch likes disguises and amusing pseudonyms; here, they're just on the verge of running away with the movie. Sure, some of this stuff is funny, but it's funny at the expense of our investment in the story as a story. It's too bad Chase didn't trust the material more, and really too bad he allowed this stuff to completely take over Fletch Lives. If he had stayed truer to the material, he might well have had
the franchise he was looking for.
But Chevy Chase has a way of strangling his own success in its cradle over and over again; he fails despite himself. He's a talented man, but not as talented as he clearly thinks he is, and, worse, not talented in the ways he clearly thinks he is.
Fletch is particularly well-cast, with great character actors scattered throughout the film, including Joe Don Baker, George Wendt, Richard Libertini, M. Emmet Walsh, Kenneth Mars, George Wyner and William Sanderson. Geena Davis has a good early role as the newspaper staffer who believes in Fletch and his plans; she is, in fact, more attractive than Wheeler-Nicholson, and leaves us wanting more.
In terms of production values, Fletch is a well-made studio product, although Harold Faltermeyer's repetitious, percussive score seems very dated and ineffective.
There's nothing very special about the DVD's special features, although it's nice to find bios, however brief, on actors like Joe Don Baker and Richard Libertini, exactly the kind of supporting player too often overlooked in this regard.
Fletch is largely well-balanced between straight and funny, but some of the funny stuff is silly, such as the scene with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and some, such as the "Fred Dorfman" testimonial, go on too long. But the movie did well at the boxoffice, and Chase had a brief vogue again; they picked up on all the wrong cues for Fletch Lives, however, and killed their golden goose. If Ritchie and Chase had just eased back on the gags a bit -- it wouldn't have taken much restraint -- Fletch would probably have been a bigger hit than it was, and would be better remembered today.