Fletch is a midsize star vehicle
This story was originally published in the June 4, 1985 issue of the Boston PhoenixIt’s odd that, even though the old Hollywood star system has vanished, filmmakers continue to make star vehicles. Already this summer we’ve seen Richard Pryor and Sylvester Stallone turn up in tailor-made celluloid, and now here’s Chevy Chase in a fashionable conveyance of his own. Fletch is a two-for-one-type picture: it’s based on a bestseller, so its presold audience is a safety net for Chase’s up-and-down box-office performance; conversely, Chase’s presence should sell the movie to those who eschew mystery fiction. All that’s left after ingenious packaging like this is to go out and make the movie – just a minor detail, really. Of course, the possibility that the brazen wheelers and dealers who back projects like this will fall flat on their faces is enormous: all too often, the calculation stops short of the execution. But Fletch turns out to be an amiable comedy thriller – if very rough in patches and hardly a triumph of style – and that’s because Chase is ultimately able to drive it.
The role of a smart-aleck reporter caught up in a maelstrom of drug running, official corruption, and sex-among-the-rich would seem perfect for Chase personally, except that after television success and a dozen or so leading movie roles, it’s still hard to say much about his persona. Mostly he seems to evince a kind of lazy contempt, a lack of interest so profound he can’t even muster a sneer. For a long time Chase’s best role was as the golf pro in Caddyshack; for one thing, he looks every bit the disengaged WASP pursuing the perfect putt with a Zen disregard for the physical world. That kind of looniness gave a context to his non-sequiturs (still a large part of his comedy style – there’s a whole scene in Fletch built around a speech full of them) and to the odd sidelong glances that always looked away from the other characters. But after his early success he (or his handlers) tried to build himself into a more conventional leading man, and all of a sudden the previously missing sneer showed up. Chase’s characters in movies like Modern Problems and Seems Like Old Times had no sympathy for the people around him. Any thought that he could feel affection for a bit of fluff like Goldie Hawn was so out of keeping with everything he represented that it wasn’t even funny, just false.
Although no career as untidy as Chase’s could show simple highs and lows, he did seem to get back on track with National Lampoon’s Vacation (directed, like Caddyshack, by Harold Ramis, of SCTV fame). There he finally began to open up. And amid the rancid depiction of family life, we glimpsed some possible causes of that detached nastiness. Instead of taking place on an empty soundstage or in front of characters who were just scenery fillers, Chase’s famous pratfalls occurred in full sight of his family. Repeatedly he looked most foolish in front of the people he most wanted to impress. The snide contempt originated within him, and the klutziness became the foundation for a neurotic character.
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