THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"CHARGE IT TO THE UNDERHILLS: FLETCH TURNS 30"
“It's all ball bearings nowadays.”
“Charge it to the Underhills.”
“I'll have a Bloody Mary, and a steak sandwich, and a steak sandwich.”
“Are you using the whole fist, doc?”
Do you know what movie these lines of dialogue are from? If I don't have to tell you, you're my kind of person. I've often stated that my favorite movie of all time is Star Wars. What I don't think I've ever publicly stated is that my second favorite movie of all time is Fletch. I know almost every line of dialogue by heart, and I've seen it many, many, many times, yet it always makes me laugh hysterically in all the same places.
Fletch was based on the first in Gregory McDonald's series of mystery novels, which themselves are all kinds of awesome. It tells the story of investigative reporter Irwin Fletcher, played by Chevy Chase. While pretending to be a bum as research for a story on the local drug trade, he is mistaken for an actual down-and-out drifter by millionaire Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson). Stanwyk claims to be dying of cancer and offers Fletch money to kill him and make it look like a robbery gone bad. The reporter plays along while simultaneously investigating Stanwyk. He discovers that the millionaire is actually healthy as can be, which means that the botched robbery scenario is a set-up for a complicated insurance scam. Using his wits, Fletch finds out what Stanwyk is up to, foils his plans, and even romances the guy's wife.
On the page, Fletch was a sharp-tongued reporter trained to keep the wheels turning in his mind. He was always mentally one step ahead of everyone else. Much of that is retained in the film, with screenwriter Andrew Bergman even keeping chunks of McDonald's dialogue intact. The casting of Chevy Chase added another element, though. A skilled ad-libber, Chase was given room to play by director Michael Ritchie, who understood that as long as the carefully structured plot was never sacrificed, it was okay to indulge in some silliness. And so it was that the screen iteration of Fletch was also a master of disguise, able to extract information from others by altering his appearance and/or giving phony names. Chase has said in interviews that, during an early scene in which Stanwyk asks Fletch what his name is, he improvised "Ted Nugent," thereby setting the stage for the distinct form of deception famously practiced by the character.
My first viewing of Fletch was on its opening weekend in May of 1985. It is important to understand that I grew up admiring the Saturday Night Live comedians of the era: Chevy Chase, Dan Akyroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, etc. The style of comedy then was different than it is now. More often than not, those guys chose to play the smartest person in the room. Their characters were hipper and wittier than everyone else, able to deflate the pomposity of others with a perfectly timed sardonic quip. Comedians of the next generation (Sandler, Farley, Spade) would compete to see who could be the dumbest person in the room; they virtually made a sport of playing stupid in the movies. That's fine, I guess, but as a 16 year-old, the idea of being able to mentally outwit others held a strong appeal. And no movie character represented that better than Fletch.
Certainly, a large part of the reason the film has spawned such a devoted cult is because others also marvel at - and are envious of - Fletch's uncanny ability to talk his way into or out of any situation. His skill level is so high that even when he says absurd things, those around him fail to catch on. For instance, when trying to illegally obtain medical information about Stanwyk, he puts on scrubs and identifies himself to a hospital nurse as "Dr. Rosenrosen" (after initially dubbing himself "Dr. Rosenpenis"). Later, he breaks into a home in search of an important clue. After being discovered in the bedroom by a shotgun-wielding man, Fletch says that he's with "the mattress police," further warning the guy that "there are no tags on these mattresses."
Few movies have taken such good advantage of Chase's gifts. In the Vacation pictures, he played a hapless husband and father, eternally frustrated by his inability to experience Norman Rockwell-eque perfection. As iconic as he is in the role of Clark Griswold, one cannot escape the feeling that Fletch is the part that truly belongs to Chase. The actor takes McDonald's wise-ass creation and tailors it to his own particular style of wise-assery. Going back at least to his SNL days, Chase has displayed an absurdist edge in his comedy, typified by his penchant for saying/doing silly things in such a manner as to let the audience know that he's in on the joke. When, in Fletch, he puts on oversized glasses, sticks a Band-Aid on his nose, and calls himself "Mr. Poon," it's a ridiculous sight, but that isn't the joke; the joke is that everyone (us, Chase, the film itself) knows it's ridiculous, yet the other people in the story do not. Fletch virtually flaunts his manipulations in front of those he encounters, doing it with such supreme conviction as to become unassailable.
One problem many screen comedians have faced - and which foiled Chase himself in many of his pictures - is that being ridiculous is not enough. If Fletch were only a 90-minute excuse for its star to drop bon mots and wear funny costumes, it would not have endured as it has. Credit must be given to the plot, which unfolds the mystery in a logical, coherent way. Unlike some of Chase's other efforts, such as Under the Rainbow or Modern Problems, Fletch has a story that's actually worth following, and which pays off in a satisfying manner. Basically, Ritchie and Bergman hewed close to the source material and then flavored it with Chase's strengths as a comic lead. In contrast, the 1989 sequel Fletch Lives was not based on any of McDonald's novels and, while in possession of some vintage Chevy Chase moments, pales in comparison to the original thanks to a dopey plot that runs out of gas before the end.
Fletch also has many other pleasures, including a sterling supporting cast that includes Joe Don Baker as a corrupt cop, Richard Libertini as Fletch's disbelieving editor, and a young Geena Davis as his assistant. Tim Matheson is appropriately smarmy as Fletch's foil, while M. Emmett Walsh is deadpan perfection as Stanwyk's physician. Even the smallest roles - like the drug dealer/confidential informant played by George Wendt - have been cast exceedingly well. The other actors are essentially straight men for Chase's Fletch. They provide grounding for his antics. When you stop and think about it, Chase is the only person in the movie doing comedy; everyone else is doing drama. Had the supporting performers been ordered to be funny too, the movie would have fallen flat. Ritchie knew he needed good actors to take the roles seriously so that the main character's wisecracks and fabrications could most humorously bounce off them.
The music is really great, too. Composer Harold Faltermeyer did the score, and I think it's even better than the famous one he did for Beverly Hills Cop. It was standard to have plenty of pop songs in movies in the 80s, even if they had little or no relevance to the action on-screen. Fletch was lucky enough to have two near-perfect tunes, both tailor made. Stephanie Mills did the theme song, "Bit by Bit," which name-checked the title character, while Dan Hartman's "Fletch, Get Outta Town" (played during a third-act car chase) did likewise. While less integral to the movie, The Fixx's "A Letter to Both Sides" is quite wonderful as well. Sadly, the Fletch soundtrack has never been released on CD. I have an old cassette copy that I guard with my life.
On every level, Fletch works beautifully. Although it was released in the 80s, it still holds up today. In some respects, it plays even better. Whereas in 1985 it was seen as "a Chevy Chase comedy," the intervening years have revealed it to be top-flight comedy filmmaking. Not groundbreaking, perhaps, but solid and durable to multiple viewings. Fletch has a level of intelligence that it rightly assumes the audience shares. Watching it for the third, fourth, or twentieth time, you can see how carefully developed all the characters are, no matter how small their functions. You can appreciate the precision of the writing, which dispenses one-liners with the accuracy of an archer hitting a bullseye. You can admire the way Michael Ritchie knew when to indulge in absurdity and when to pull back into reality. Very few movie comedies have this kind of balance; they mistakenly believe that attempting to be balls-to-the-wall funny all the time is better than picking and choosing the exact right moments to unleash gold.
Truth be told, there probably isn't a day that goes by where I don't quote or reference Fletch in some way, shape, or form. The movie has become ingrained in my psyche. Chevy Chase has always had my vote for Funniest Person Ever. Even though he's made his fair share of duds, Chase is hilarious when he's "on." And he's never been more "on" than he is as Irwin M. Fletcher. Or Irving Babar. Or Harry S. Truman. Or…
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