Monday, August 04, 2008

Film Review--Fletch (1985)

This week, I received the upcoming two-disc release of Fletch and Fletch Lives for review on DVD Verdict. Because I have to review the classic original alongside its abysmal sequel, I decided to write a few thoughts here about the movie by itself.

It had been more than a decade sing I’d last seen Fletch and, after an awful experience with re-watching Trading Places recently, I didn’t know how well it would hold up after all this time. No matter how much I loved the movie then, there were no guarantees about how funny it would be, especially given how decidedly not funny he is at this point. It took about three movies for me to tire of Chase’s bit and he’s become just about as bad as a comedian can get. So, as to the question of whether I’ve simply stopped liking his shtick or he’s stopped performing it well, I’m happy to say that it is him and not me who has the problem. Fletch is a damn funny movie that is among the absolute best work of Chase’s career, if it’s not the best film he’s in (which is Caddyshack, hands down, though more because of Bill Murray and Ted Knight than Chase). On a side note, I was very surprised to realize that this was rated PG in 1985 and oh how the rating systems have changed. There’s nothing gratuitously violent or sexual, but the language and sexual humor couldn’t even get a PG-13 rating today.

At this point in his career, Chase was the uncrowned king of the one-liners and, left to his own devices, comes across doing a Groucho Marx-style bit, except with more pratfalls. He’s good at it, spewing out a seemingly endless stream of smart-assed remarks to anyone he sees and then falling on his face. I’m no fan of pratfall comedy in general, but he makes me laugh with it every time, though it’s the lines that make the movie. Everyone’s a straight man to the aloof Fletch, whose self-satisfaction is beyond the pale (one of many reasons that this character is the most like Chase as a person). Abusing the kindness of junkies, sexually harassing women, and generally being a dick is Fletch’s game, but everyone around him acts, if not quite normally, that this is business as usual instead of the more deserving, less funny, response of punching him in the face. The only exasperation comes from the newspaper editor, whose hot story is being held up by our hero’s antics, this has less to do with Fletch and more with his stereotypically Jewish neuroses.

Technically, the characters are based on novels by Gregory McDonald but, in reality, Fletch, who is the only character with any depth, is a creation entirely Chase’s own. Not having read the books, I can only assume that the surrounding story is more closely adapted, but Chase was free to ad-lib all he wanted to the point where he has said that he directed the comedy. It’s hard to argue with that but, though every scene is constructed to allow Chase the most comic freedom, screenwriter Andrew Bergman and director Michael Ritchie have made a generally well-written and well-composed film for an action/comedy, certainly not my favorite genre with all its requisite shootouts and car chases, but the story is more compelling than most of its kind. Ritchie never allows plot coherence to get in the way of a good joke, however, the way it should be in a comedy. The classic lines and delivery, what everyone always stood in line to see from Chevy Chase, in the end, are what make Fletch so memorable and, to finish, these are my three favorite lines from the film, at least of what I can think of right now.

5. “It was something your wife said while we were in bed together. She said we had the same build. From the waist up, I mean.
4. “You know if you shoot me, you’re liable to lose those humanitarian awards.”
3. “I would have been here sooner, but a manure-spreader jackknifed on the Santa Ana. Godawful mess. You should see my shoes.”
2. “May I borrow that towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.”
and...drum roll, please....
1. [to distract a raging Doberman] “Look! Defenseless babies!”