Thursday, September 27, 2012

Using the Whole Fist, Doc?: "Fletch" (1985)



Twenty four years ago last month, I was a greasy teenager (weighing a hundred and twenty-five pounds less and sporting a full head of hair) sitting in a theater in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was on a date with my high school girlfriend, and we were watching "Fletch." Things between my girlfriend and I did not work out, but my love affair with this movie continues to this day.

Chevy Chase, in his best role, is Irwin Fletcher, an investigative newspaper reporter who writes under the pseudonym "Jane Doe." He is investigating drug trafficking at a Los Angeles beach when he is approached by a very wealthy Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson). Stanwyk, believing Fletch is a junkie, asks our hero to murder him. Stanwyk is dying of bone cancer, and wants the life insurance to go to his wife, Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Fletch, sensing an even bigger story, agrees, and goes about investigating Stanwyk, not liking what he is finding. Everything Stanwyk has told him is a lie, right down to his cancer diagnosis, and Fletch must solve the crime even before it happens, since he has agreed to commit the murder within two days.

Filled with four hours' worth of "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-quality one-liners, "Fletch" came along at a perfect time in Chase's career. Not since the "National Lampoon's Vacation" movies has he been funnier, and he settles into the role like he has been playing it for years. Andrew Bergman adapted Gregory McDonald's novel, and keeps the script moving along at lightning pace. Fletch is no perfect investigator, and is often caught in his elaborately funny lies, but Chase plays him so smoothly, he uses his charm to get out of many a jam. Bergman keeps the audience in the dark along with Fletch, letting all of us discover things for ourselves. Harold Faltermeyer's musical score is very un-"Axel F", thank God, and even the theme song "Bit by Bit" rocks along.

The cast here is also excellent. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson is cute and funny as Gail, and the fact that her career did not take off after this is a crime. Richard Libertini is hilarious in the role of Fletch's editor, as is Geena Davis in a small role as a newspaper assistant. There are a lot more familiar faces here: Joe Don Baker, George Wendt, Kenneth Mars, Tony Longo, James Avery, Alison Laplaca, William Sanderson, and even a cameo by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and everyone is fantastic. No, the plot is not Agatha Christie-worthy, and the coincidences get a little unbelievable, but Ritchie's also-smooth direction of Chase pulls it off.

Of course, Chase seems to suffer from "Even Numbered Sequel Syndrome," and "Fletch Lives" is awful and ended the promising franchise, which still threatens to start up here and there. Don't believe in ENSS? Witness "National Lampoon's European Vacation" and "Caddyshack II" for further evidence in Chase's case.

I don't know what ever happened to my high school sweetheart, I haven't spoken to her in over twenty years, but every time "Fletch" is on cable, I find myself watching and saying the lines along with the characters. Reliving my youth, and laughing my ass off...I wouldn't have it any other way. (* * * * *) out of five stars. Watch this movie now!: Fletch