Fletch December 2, 2021
Joe Don Baker
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
.A. Times investigative reporter Irvin M. “Fletch” Fletcher (Chevy Chase) has his own column; he writes under the pen name Jane Doe. When we first meet him, he’s combing a local beach for interviewees. (His latest exposé is about seaside drug trafficking.) After wrapping up his reporting for the day, he’s stopped on the way back to his car by a well-coiffed man who turns out to be an aviation executive (Tim Matheson).
The man, Alan Stanwyck, reticently offers Fletch — whom he believes is a drifting drug addict based on his long consorts with beach bums he’s been watching from afar — $1,000 if he comes back to his house with him for what sounds like a lucrative one-off job offer.
When they get to Stanwyck’s sprawling mansion, the latter offers to pay Fletch $50,000 more if he agrees to — and he barely pauses for dramatic effect before saying this — kill him this Thursday. Stanwyck claims to have bone cancer, and says he’d rather be put out of his misery than decline into illness. Murder has to be the way to go, he clarifies, because suicide wouldn’t leave his family with the primo insurance benefits murder would. Fletch offers a “sure” to Stanwyck’s bizarre request; the gleam in his eyes spells out his ulterior motives. He’s not really in it for the $50,000: he’s really buying himself time and proximity to get to the bottom of Stanwyck’s true intentions, then get a column of a lifetime from it. Maybe he’ll get a Pulitzer for this strange and personal tale of a murder-for-hire gone twisty.
Fletch treats the ensuing investigation not like a real-life journalist might — diligently moving through a nippy sea of interviews and documents as a deadline hovers — but the way a master of disguise in the Zelig (1983) mode would. He never requests basic one-on-one time with a person of interest mediated by a tape recorder. Instead he impulsively inserts himself into situations with potentially juicy leads and obscures himself with costumes and assumed identities. During phone calls he always puts on a funny voice and false intentions. He gets into car chases, conducts break-ins, romances the wife (a very likable Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) of a subject he’s looking into. He never takes notes. (One time, though, he does make a small and obvious observation in a tape recorder.) Fletch doesn’t even resemble a journalist in quotation marks. He’s more of a cinematic approximation cooked up by someone who knows little about journalism and is happy to conjoin the two most prevalent stereotypes about reporters seen in the movies. Success is contingent on a willingness to deceive; conducting an investigation is, more than anything, an adventure unperturbed by firm deadlines, nauseously high stakes, or a strict ethical code.
One doesn’t think about getting that annoyed with Fletch (1985)’s newspaper-industry misconceptions, though. It’s a comedy-thriller engineered — and successfully — to be a breeze, carried by an unrelentingly smart-aleck Chase performance that keeps us in a state of tickled. Most of its comedy goes down easy — the movie is never not enjoyable — and Chase’s knack for telling jokes with such coolness that you almost don’t notice their construction is used well.
But his performance is also as much an asset as an impediment: supportive of consistent and genuine amusement but also destructive to any suspense. Even in the face of danger, Chase feels less like a person in trouble than smug Chevy Chase plopped into a movie scene. Whether rammed into a wall painting in a police chief’s office or threatened by a loaded hunting rifle held by the dismayed owner of the house he’s just snuck into, Chase doesn’t think to temporarily playact anxiety because he’s too busy thinking about how he’s going to deliver the next joke. His face is permanently frozen in a smirk. The performance is like a sardonic DVD commentary track in human form.
With the final reveal Fletch has, there ought to be at least a smear of tension in the lead-up. But Fletch goes by with the odd sense that there is almost nothing to really be worried about, because this preternaturally assured journalist is going to figure it all out. Another comedy-thriller Chase headlined, the Goldie Hawn co-starring Foul Play (1978), succeeds more than Fletch does because, so much of the time, its smart thriller instincts fluidly combined with its laughs. Fletch is laughing even when it’s out of place. It’s the movie equivalent of an ostensibly investigative article incongruously written with the same level of seriousness as a puff piece. B