Friday, March 19, 2010
No Elephant Books
I mentioned that I had seen INTO THE NIGHT on a double bill with FLETCH at the New Beverly several weeks ago now and it’s probably easy for anyone to guess which film had the bigger crowd. Now, I admit it, I like FLETCH. Actually, sometimes it seems that everyone likes FLETCH and I suppose if somebody around my age doesn’t know how to drop lines from this movie at random then as far as society is concerned there’s something wrong with them. But I’ve never gotten into the whole massive FLETCH cult thing that gets referenced in articles in The Onion and seems to accept it as one of the greatest films ever made. I sometimes feel like standing on a rooftop shouting, “People, calm down! Seriously, it’s just FLETCH!” But seeing it again this time I totally enjoyed it and found myself appreciating what director Michael Ritchie pulled off with the movie. After a terrific run of films through the seventies that included PRIME CUT, SMILE and THE BAD NEWS BEARS the eighties had the director helming a vehicle for seemingly every big-name comedy actor out there, not always to the best results—THE SURVIVORS, WILDCATS, THE GOLDEN CHILD, THE COUCH TRIP. Maybe there are some scattered laughs in there but are you really going to try defending these things? Released on May 31, 1985 FLETCH is without a doubt the best of any of them, taking a star who clicks totally with the character and a story that never becomes too much for the material. Taken out of its place in pop culture FLETCH is still a very sharp, enjoyable movie as well as a really good star vehicle and it’s a shame that they never made any sequels. Well, that’s not entirely true but we’ll avoid discussing that for the time being.
An adaptation of the original novel by Gregory McDonald (and a pretty loose one though some of the skeleton is there), the story of investigative newspaper reporter I.F. Fletcher (Chevy Chase), better known as Fletch, and his investigation of drugs on the beach as he gets hired to—hang on, you don’t really want me to recite the plot, do you? You’ve already seen this movie a hundred times, right? You know the fake names he uses, the disguises and all the lines, whether coming from the screenplay by the great Andrew Bergman or ad-libs by Chevy himself—Dr. Rosenrosen, charge it to the Underhills, The Mattress Police, Frieda’s Boss, no elephant books, I can’t figure out what I was doing in Utah, Morris or Pierre, my car just hit a water buffalo, a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich as well as an always welcome BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA reference. Many of the jokes throughout really do work well, but FLETCH keeps all this on a grounded level of comedy and mystery by not trying to make its modest investigation plot more complicated than it is. In the best detective story way of both cases ultimately collapsing into one the plot may be a little too clean in that regard but all the elements do come together in the end and it doesn’t make a particularly big deal about it. It’s as if the film is saying, you want to pay attention to all this exposition, fine—it’ll all make sense. But if all you care about is Chevy acting goofy without caring why, that’s ok too.
My several decade-old memories of reading the book are that the storyline is considerably darker (it also had Fletch doing characters when he calls people on the phone to ask them questions, which wouldn’t be very cinematic) particularly in the beach stuff which even here still feels a little like scenes left over from considerably darker earlier drafts (plus I’m guessing that the Los Angeles Chief of Police probably wouldn’t have much interest in Santa Monica, but whatever). Michael Ritchie brings a relaxed style to this film which considering how much the high-concept nature of it feels locked into the 80s the looseness it projects isn’t all that different from his best work in the 70s. He may have been just a director-for-hire on this project to keep the star in line but the casual nature of it all gives the impression that the two worked well together—it’s like Chase was given a certain amount of freedom to go as far as he wanted with some of these characters and Ritchie knows which jokes to focus on and when. Even the climax where everything is revealed leading up to a small amount of gunplay is basically confined to one small room—what matters is the plot and Chevy’s wisecracks so there’s no need to make this a big action scene anyway. That’s not why we’re watching this thing. Ritchie clearly knows how to make this what a star vehicle should be, showing Chevy off in the best way possible and as a result the film is just about the best pure demonstration of that we ever got. His performance as Fletch shows that he clearly knows what a good character this is and he’s totally present, fully committed to doing everything possible to sell us this guy who’s sharper than everyone around him and get us on his side. And he’s present not just for the laughs but the serious moments—when he lays out the plot to Dana Wheeler-Nicholson’s Gail Stanwyk the laughs are correctly dialed back with even the running gag of the Underhills playing like extra tension here and Chase plays it basically straight in a non-showy way that doesn’t kill the plot—there have been plenty of other comic actors through the years who haven’t pulled off this kind of tonal switch nearly as well.
But even when things become slightly more serious it never kills the ultimately breezy tone of the whole thing. Random comment on the music which adds greatly to that feel—the Harold Faltermeyer main theme isn’t as recognizable as BEVERLY HILLS COP’s “Axel F”, also his, but I’ll bet if you watched FLETCH a bunch back in the day you’d know it if you heard it. What’s cool about the way the music is used here is that it scores not the comedy but, in addition to action and suspense stuff, the attitude of Fletch (and Axel Foley in that film), providing flavor to the transitional stuff as he goes from one place to the other trying to piece the case together. When he arrives at his destination to act goofy the music stops and the jokes begin. It scores the mood instead of the laughs and the bouncy, sardonic tone it provides to these movies is a large reason why we remember them so fondly all these years later. Kevin Smith brought back Faltermeyer to score the recent COP OUT in an attempt to give it the feel of one of those movies but though a few transitions have that vibe too often the music is used throughout to score the wacky comedy antics of the two leads. It certainly doesn’t help make that film any funnier and gives the impression that while Kevin Smith may have liked those themes he never bothered to sit down and figure out why they worked so well (it’s not a good movie anyway and that’s all that needs to be said about COP OUT). The music in FLETCH might be an artifact of the 80s but it’s definitely fun, it totally supports the character of who this guy is and helps sell the whole film immeasurably.
Considering how much the film is meant to be a pure spotlight for Chevy it's easy to forget how he’s backed up by a well-cast group of people who manage to make impressions with not much screentime—in some cases, just a single scene—and this adds hugely to the world of the film. If these other actors didn’t make any sort of impression then how Fletch fools them under his various guises wouldn’t have any real comic effect. Remember reliable character actors? Remember when casting someone like M. Emmet Walsh for just a few scenes was a normal thing? Just watching Walsh in a scene with Chase is fun, Tim Matheson is appropriately smarmy as Alan Stanwyk (I always thought his casting was interesting considering how Chase almost played his ANIMAL HOUSE role), Joe Don Baker’s Chief of Police is a convincingly nasty threat, William Traylor (also in Ritchie’s SMILE) is the insufferable Ted Underhill and Richard Libertini’s editor is believably exasperated yet within the film’s own logic he’s still a character that makes sense. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson as the female lead (she later played Wyatt Earp’s wife in TOMBSTONE) is a likable choice for Chevy to bounce lines off of and the movie wisely doesn’t try to overdo her cuteness—usually I hate when someone laughs at how “funny” the lead is but here it actually works and because of that we buy her response to him. Throughout the film are actors who when dealing with Fletch in his various guises are correctly directed to play it as real instead of a sitcom, like they really aren’t sure how to deal with this person. Alison LaPlaca has several well-played reactions as the airline clerk and Beau Starr’s obvious suspicion in his single scene opposite Fletch’s disguise as “Gordon Liddy” doesn’t pay off but it doesn’t have to—it just provides his moments of screen time with an unexpected intensity, as if the actor didn’t even know he’d been hired to be in a comedy. George Wyner makes such an impression in his role as Fletch’s ex-wife’s divorce lawyer that it’s surprising to see how brief his role really is and Geena Davis provides a spark to her role as ever-reliable Larry at the newspaper, one of a number of elements that would have worked well in a sequel.
Of course, there was a sequel—1989’s FLETCH LIVES, also directed by Ritchie (who died in 2001) but not written by Bergman. With a plot set around Fletch inheriting a plantation down south and getting mixed up with a murder, it’s pretty lame stuff and strangely not based on any of the books--you’d think that they would have found something to use in one of them. A movie based on FLETCH AND THE MAN WHO actually was in development at one point and Bergman even wrote a script so it seems strange that this didn’t happen—were studio politics involved? Of course, FLETCH made $50 million back in the summer of ‘85 which was certainly a decent amount but didn’t make any kind of sequel inevitable. They must not have realized how much the whole world would know lines from this thing eventually. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly extensively goes over Kevin Smith’s attempts in recent years to revive FLETCH as a film series but doesn’t provide much information as to what went down in Universal City back in the 80s. For his part, Bergman offers, ''I think Chevy could have done five Fletch movies. It really could have been his Clouseau. It should have been.'' He’s probably right. It would be nice to imagine a new FLETCH movie that was more like the books but the public’s identification with Chase in the role would probably prevent that. So I’m not sure what the answer is to what to do with the character anymore but there is still this one movie. It was worth revisiting with a good crowd—nice new print at the New Beverly, too. Still, let’s not make a big thing out of it. After all, it’s just FLETCH. But I mean that in the nicest possible way.