Why FLETCH Is More Than Just A Funny Movie To Me
When I was a kid, I divided most of my movie watching time more or less equally between horror movies and those that starred one Cornelius Crane Chase, better known as Chevy Chase. It was my dad who introduced me to this actor; two of my oldest memories involve watching his films, and as I got older his movies would be among the few things my dad and I still had in common (Dad was not a fan of horror movies, for the record). But this "growing up" period was the '90s, and as any die-hard fan of Chevy Chase knows, this was not a good time for the guy - when Man of the House is your only hit, things are definitely dire. In fact I'm not even sure if my dad, who would imitate Clark Griswold on each and every family vacation we ever took, bothered with Vegas Vacation - the closest I think he got to it was dropping me off at the theater. And I was getting wise enough to know that films like Cops & Robbersons were hardly quality cinema, so I started focusing more and more on the horror movies I loved and less and less on Chase's vehicles, seeing his new ones out of obligation and never really revisiting the older ones anymore.
(Save for Christmas Vacation. That one was inescapable, especially for someone who worked at a video store during three holiday seasons.)
Anyway, in the summer of 2000 I had a nasal surgery that left me unable to go out for a week (since I could barely breathe and I had occasional blood running out of a nose I couldn't blow clean), and so I did what any 20-year-old who was more or less confined to a couch would do - I watched movies. And it was at this time that, on my dad's suggestion, I believe, I watched Fletch for the first time in probably 7 or 8 years. It'd actually be one of the last movies I watched with my dad, as he passed away four years later*, which over the years has carried some weight not unlike what Phil already covered quite brilliantly a few weeks ago. So as much as I'd love to talk about my dad, I'm going to focus on the other thing I took away from that long overdue revisiting: how much the movie has influenced me.
I don't mean influence in terms of my writing or what kinds of movies I gravitate toward - I literally mean ME. When I need someone to repeat something, I usually say "Excuse you?". When I knock on a door, I immediately say "Come in!" myself. If I'm sitting down and someone walks behind me I cock my head to watch them exit. I have done all of these things for as long as I can remember, and never really thought about WHY any more than I think about why I use the adhesive at the top of a CD or DVD to wrap up the cellophane into a little ball. But as I sat there watching Fletch for the first time as an adult, I was kind of shell-shocked to discover that so many of my little quirks were inspired from this one movie, and that I was subconsciously just mimicking Chevy Chase in my everyday life. I mean, I do some of his schtick on purpose (very fond of looking at my watch-free wrist and reacting to the time), but I really had no idea these things I did were even from a movie at all, let alone all from one particular movie. Even odder, I don't recall binging on Fletch like I did the first three Vacations, Three Amigos or Foul Play as a kid. Hell, even Caddyshack II probably got more play (not the first - I never had a copy of it growing up!). Our household copy of the film was off a TV broadcast and was missing some key scenes (such as the airport bit where he discovers that Sally Ann Cavanaugh will be flying to Rio de Janeiro - I was always confused how he made that leap when confronting Stanwyk), so it wasn't until I later got the DVD that I even saw the whole movie intact, I bet.
Needless to say, that 2000 viewing rekindled my love for the movie that I literally never knew I had. Over the years it's rightfully taken its place as my favorite Chevy Chase movie (sorry, Vacation!) and now sits near the top of my favorite movies, period. As a kid I just liked Chevy's silly antics and costumes, and the "action" that it offered like the car chase and, uh, Mrs. Stanwyk hitting Joe Don Baker on the shoulder with a tennis racket and knocking him out cold. I didn't get all of the innuendos ("from the waist up, I imagine.") or even what the plot was really about (nothing gets a 10-year-old excited like an embezzling scheme!), but it had my hero Chevy in it and I could tell who the bad guys were, so it was more than enough to satisfy my adolescent tastes. As an older guy, I realized that not only was all that stuff well and good, but the movie had what very few '80s comedies did - a legitimately good story at its core. A mystery, in fact, one that's structured better than most traditional mystery movies, as "Jane Doe" learns things at a measured pace and actually uses his skills as an investigative reporter, instead of just having people ramble exposition at him until someone identifies themselves as the culprit.
This is, of course, due to the fact that it's based on a novel and so they already had a lot of the plot work laid out for them, but the movie actually strengthens the story, tying (albeit somewhat flimsily) the drug storyline and the Stanwyk storyline together. In the book these two plot threads never really merge (the Chief kills Stanwyk, but because he mistakes him for Fletch, not because of their own personal conflict), which surprised me when I read the book in 2004, but also explained why it seemed undercooked in the film. But the biggest difference, and the one most often cited, is that the book offers kind of a harsh version of the story, one that the movie softened quite a bit. In the book Fletch beds a junkie prostitute (an underage one at that), has TWO ex-wives, is said to be a Vietnam veteran, etc. Not exactly hard-R material, but also not really in line with "Chevy Chase comedy." Aliases were used, but not disguises, and so overall it's a mystery (an Edgar Award winner, in fact) with some funny lines as opposed to a comedy with a solid mystery behind it. The script by Andrew Bergman and (an uncredited) Phil Alden Robinson increased the comedy from the novel on its own, but Chevy took it a step further, improvising a lot of the lines that have been quoted over and over for the past 30 years, including the "water buffalo" and "Mooooooooooooooooooooon river!" bits. This, I have to assume, is the reason it wasn't included in that WGA list of the 100 funniest scripts when nonsense like Wedding Crashers did - it's a good script turned into a great movie by its star.
And that's also what makes the movie so valuable today - Chevy is undeniably hilarious in it. Johnny Carson famously said that Chevy couldn't "ad-lib a fart after a bean dinner," and his ability certainly didn't improve with age (witness his bizarre attempts at off-the-cuff remarks on the Community bloopers for proof), but in Fletch he made it look easy. Of all his roles, Irwin M. Fletcher was probably the closest to his real life persona, making it a great fit for the untrained (and admittedly not amazing) actor, and it was also made when he was in his prime as a leading man - this wasn't even his biggest hit that year (Spies Like Us outgrossed it!). It was a time where his instincts were still correct and he was still choosing the right projects - a strength that would start to fade in the later part of the decade and seemingly become non-existent by the time Nothing But Trouble came around. Between Christmas Vacation and Community he didn't have a major part in anything that could be unquestionably be considered great entertainment - stuff one could DEFEND, sure (Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Dirty Work, for me) but nothing that would inspire the sort of admiration Fletch had earned, not even close.
That said, even though it's all Chevy's show (he's in every single scene; even Vacation will drop Clark for a few minutes when necessary), he's backed by a stellar supporting cast. Everyone in this movie is either a solid character actor (including William Sanderson, George Wendt and the godfather of great character actors M. Emmet Walsh) or someone who had or would eventually carry their own films - Geena Davis, Joe Don Baker (Mitchell!), etc. I assume Michael Ritchie was at least part of the reason it attracted so many solid performers to show up for one or two scenes (Sanderson is barely even recognizable); Chase is notoriously not loved by the people he worked with, but Ritchie had rightfully earned some clout and respect thanks to his earlier successes (Bad News Bears chief among them) so I'm sure anyone who might have been scared off by Chevy otherwise did the movie just to work with him. That said, Ritchie is the only director** to work with Chase three times (Landis and Ramis topped out at two each), directing the sequel and Cops & Robbersons, so perhaps he was actually pleasant to work with on this one.
In a strange way, that bad rep is also why I have a lot of love for this movie. It's hard to be a Chevy defender at times (if one of the other five of you is reading this, I'm sure you can agree), and his other big hits have someone else to pin their success on - cite Caddyshack and people will say it's Ramis, Murray and Dangerfield that give the movie its popularity. Vacation? That's John Hughes and Ramis (again) working their magic. But Fletch? You can give McDonald and Ritchie their due, of course, but it was Chevy's improv that made it the oft-quoted (Onion worthy!) classic that we still think about today, instead of it being a solid mystery with some comic flair that rarely comes up in conversation. I perused the screenplay looking for all of my favorite bits from the movie, and every single one of them is different/less funny on the page than what Chevy came up with for the final cut. So while it may be a rather ugly movie at times (I love that Rio de Janeiro looks like a typically dreary day in Maine), it's perfect in all the ways that matter, and even his biggest haters (the Community cast?) would have to admit he knocked it out of the park.
Long story short, I have a lot of reasons to be thankful for Fletch. It gave me easy ammo to use whenever I have to defend Chevy's abilities as a comic performer, it served as one of my last bonding experiences with my dad, and, though I didn't know it for years, it even informed how I speak and act. Ever since I realized where I got these quirks, I try not to do them as much, but when I catch myself in the act I start thinking about Fletch, which is a fine way to daydream. If you haven't seen it yet, there's a handy link below to purchase it - just put it on the Underhill's.
...I am in no way thankful for Fletch Lives, for the record.
*I know that seems a long time, but with college, my first full-time job, moving in with my girlfriend, and him moving to Florida all happening in between... not much time for a 27th viewing of Lethal Weapon 2 together for old time's sake. Goes without saying that I now wish I had made that time.
*Not counting his television work on SNL and Community, obviously.