Mention the name Irwin M. Fletcher to any guy of a certain age, and you'll receive a mountain of one-liner references about water buffalo, window gunk, the mattress police, Dr. Rosenrosen, Mr. Underhill's tab, and Our Own Fred "The Dorf" Dorfman. More than any other star in any other comedy, Chevy Chase in "Fletch" taught an entire generation the how-tos of smarminess.
But while the Cult of Fletch may be built mainly around its infinite quotables and the career-peak Chase who delivered them, the 1985 movie is more than that. Before Jeff Lebowski ambled his way through a SoCal comic film noir adventure, Fletch took a more sedate tour through his own drugs-and-murder wonderland. Revisiting "Fletch," we're reminded that it's not all about wacky disguises and goofy aliases. At its core, the film was, and still is, a top notch mystery thriller.
Based on the first in a series of novels by Gregory McDonald, the movie stars Chase (who had already sent up the mystery genre in "Foul Play") as Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher, a smartass slacker whose undercover investigative journalism work (he writes under the pseudonym "Jane Doe") leads him to a study of a drug ring operating out of one of L.A.'s seediest beaches. As the film opens, Fletch, not bothering with an alias, is posing as a beach bum, buddying up to dealer Fat Sam (George Wendt) and junkie Gummy (Larry Flash Jenkins), yet stalled n his quest to uncover Sam's source.
Enter millionaire Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), and a proposition: he'll pay Fletch $50,000 to murder him. Stanwyk gives Fletch some lines about cancer and insurance payouts and a perfect escape; Fletch doesn't buy it, but, smelling a story, he agrees to the deal. The reporter must then spend the week juggling two mysteries, all while dodging cops and wooing Stanwyk's lovely wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson).
The screenplay, by Andrew Bergman with uncredited rewrites by Phil Alden Robinson and Jerry Belson, keeps McDonald's noir-lite framework while shifting its tone ever so slightly in order to fit its star. Here is a complex mystery, rich with colorful characters and clever situations, but then Chevy Chase gets dropped into the middle of it, and he responds with his trademark cool detachment and cynical snark. It's an old school detective story where Chase crashes the party.
Both ends of that formula hold up extremely well; despite the legend that Chase ad-libbed his way through the chaos of the production, director Michael Ritchie obviously kept a leash on his star. Chase's usual shtick doesn't overwhelm the story. It doesn't even overwhelm the scene. Sure, the thing's loaded with your typical Chase flippancy, but here, a carefully balanced dose of typical Chase flippancy works with the movie, not against it. For all his efforts, Chase never upstages the plot, not even when he's hamming it up with goofy disguises.
Ah, yes, the goofy disguises. This is how most folks remember "Fletch," as a thin excuse to have Chase don wigs and novelty teeth, clowning around with fake names and silly voices. The film's poster even played this up, with its shot of Chase holding a series of fake Ids above a tagline about how he "changes his identity more often than his underwear." Yet "Fletch" doesn't really go overboard with this gimmick - one disguise is just a dream sequence (the memorable Laker afro bit), several others are relatively low-key (a surgeon's smock, fake glasses). That leaves two all-out make-up jobs: big-haired mechanic Gordon Liddy and an unnamed roller skating holy man. Which are both funny, of course, but let's also remember that a lot of the time, it's just Fletch being Fletch.
That leaves most of the comedy with an unforced feel to it. It's a casual mystery, with (aside from a single, seemingly obligatory car chase) a relatively low-key feel. And that's what makes "Fletch" sing; while we're giggling at the constant throwaway quips, we're involved with the story underneath.
The idea of this delicate balance was lost on the makers of "Fletch Lives," however. The first film was enough of a hit (at the box office, yes, but mostly on cable, which provided enough reruns to cement its cult status) to garner a sequel, which arrived in theaters in 1989, at the dawn of the long decline of Chase's career.
Instead of adapting any of the several other McDonald novels, the producers opted for an all-new story, to be scripted by Leon Capetanos. And there's your problem: rather than find ways to fit Chase's shtick into the story, Capetanos' screenplay invents a string of disguise gags and finds ways to fit a story around them. The mystery is barely there, and nobody really cares, as long as Chase gets to ham it up under a wider array of fake moustaches and silly accents. It's a terrible script, blandly written, full of cheap jokes and a flimsy story. A few of the one-liners earn some laughs, but only barely.
Oddly, while Chase is visibly enjoying a greater freedom (Ritchie returned to the director's chair but takes on a looser style, letting his star run rampant over the material), that freedom takes the film beyond casual flippancy and into a sort of apathetic anarchy. Chase looks bored whenever he's required to discuss the plot, and only lights up whenever he's allowed to mug meaninglessly to the camera.
Following an opening sequence featuring (ugh) Fletch in drag, the plot kicks off when Fletch discovers he's inherited a Louisiana plantation. He quits his newspaper job and dreams of a Disney-fied deep south, only to discover the estate is a shambles. So why would an anonymous client want to buy the damn place?
Worse, Fletch takes a lovely attorney to bed, only to wake up next to her corpse. Fletch becomes a suspect in her murder. With the help of the plantation's suspiciously dim-witted handyman (Cleavon Little), Fletch follows the trail to a televangelist (R. Lee Ermey), whose Bible-themed amusement park is buying up land in the area.
There's more to the story, but the movie can barely bring itself to care, and neither can we. Instead, the filmmakers toss us overlong bits where Fletch, disguised as a faith healer, clowns around on national television; or he dresses up like a fey nerd and barges into a biker bar; or he pretends to be an exterminator and outwits a redneck cop; or he infiltrates a KKK meeting and cracks wise, and to hell with the plot. There's also a running gag about how Fletch drives a car with no brakes, because that's how much the movie has given up.
The script also relies too heavily on the first film, with callbacks to Mr. Underhill's credit card, lengthier scenes with Fletch's boss (Richard Libertini) and the alimony attorney (George Wyner), and fanciful dream sequences (instead of the whimsical Lakers dream, we get an overblown production in which Chase and a cast of hundreds sing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," complete with cartoon birds - and look, there's Mr. Underhill dancing in the background, no kidding).
Where's the wit? Where's the charm? If "Fletch" taught a generation how to embrace irony and humorous cynicism, "Fletch Lives" taught us to be cynical of the things we love. Because you never know when your beloved film will become a soulless franchise, and when your snark-master leading man will turn into an insipid ass. But hey, we'll always have John Cocktoastin.
Universal has collected two previously released discs - the 2007 "Jane Doe Edition" of "Fletch" and the barebones 2003 edition of "Fletch Lives" - into a new two-disc bargain package titled "The Fletch Collection." Note that these discs are identical to the previous individual releases in every way, right down to the disc art.
The discs are packaged in a single-wide keepcase with a hinged tray to hold the second disc. A cardboard slipcover features a rotating wheel that allows you to change Chevy Chase's head to four different looks: Regular Fletch, Afro Fletch, Claude-Henry Smoot, and Roller Skate Guru. Strangely, the cover features some odd Photoshopping choices, putting Chase's head on the body of a guy pulling a handgun from his pants. Huh?
(I'm also amused by the back of the box, which promises "2 hilarious movies!" Knee-jerk sarcastic response: OK, where's the second one?)
Video & Audio
Both films are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and both transfers present a similar amount of softness and grain inherent with comedies of the era. "Fletch" was given a visual improvement with last year's special edition upgrade, but only to a point; darkly lit scenes (especially the overcast opening scene) look downright horrible, while indoor scenes with controlled lighting look crisp. The sequel benefits from being slightly younger, but it always had a cheap look, which repeats here. Flesh tones in both films look a tad oversaturated. Both movies have looked worse, yes, and there's only so much that can be done with the source material (barring hi-def; I haven't seen the HD-DVD release of "Fletch"), but there doesn't seem to have been much effort put in to either title.
"Fletch" receives a Dolby 5.1 remix, although purists will be glad to know it's a subdued mix, keeping almost all of the action up front. Dialogue is clean and clear, with Harold Faltermeyer's catchy synthesizer themes balanced quite nicely. "Fletch Lives" remains in its original stereo and sounds serviceably average. Both films include rather tinny Spanish and French stereo dubs. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also provided.
The "Jane Doe Edition" was among the lamest double dips in recent memory, with a handful of the fluffiest, most mediocre featurettes around. "Just Charge It to the Underhills: Making and Remembering Fletch" (26:33; 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) is a grating effort in which DVD producer Jason Hillhouse fails at capturing the tone of Chase's sardonic first-person narration. The story is that we're to follow him around town as he attempts to compile a making-of featurette; this helps stretch about fifteen minutes' worth of interviews with Bergman, Matheson, and a host of supporting players, I suppose to make it seem meatier than it is. At least Hillhouse has the courage to mock himself for not landing any interviews with Chevy Chase.
"From John Cocktoastin to Harry S. Truman: The Disguises" (4:54; 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) finds the filmmakers and crew discussing the task of making Fletch's costumes look both convincing and do-it-yourself cheap.
"Favorite Fletch Moments" (2:38; 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) is a musical montage of punchlines from the film. Useless.
A washed-out print of the film's original trailer (1:33; 1.33:1 full frame) reveals a relatively laid-back ad campaign; even the narration is placid.
A batch of now-dated trailers (including an ad for HD-DVD! The Look and Sound of Obsolete!) play as the disc loads.
The sole extra on the second disc is the original "Fletch Lives" trailer (1:26; 1.33:1 full frame) - unless you count the "recommendations" page that tells us we might also like "Fletch," "The Jerk," or "Slap Shot." Wait - they were still doing "recommendations" screens in 2003?
So how does one rate a bargain package like this? Obviously, if you have "Fletch" (or, for whatever reason, "Fletch Lives") on disc, you can avoid this new set completely. Meanwhile, the single-disc "Jane Doe Edition" is still available at a reasonable price, either equal to or lower than this two-disc set, and that'll let you own modern classic without the burden of also owning its lousy sequel. Unless you're a Fletch completist looking for the easiest way to nab both films, you don't need to bother with this repackaging. Skip It.