I guess a lot of people would question the wisdom of reviewing any of Chevy Chase's movies not least some of his flops but I've always liked him as an actor ever since I was a kid. Throughout most of the 80s he was almost bullet proof, scoring several commercial hit films from Caddyshack to Vacation to Spies Like Us. Though it probably wasn't his highest grossing film, 1985's Fletch was definitely the one role that perfectly chimed with his default laconic comedy persona. Even Chase admits it was his favourite role of his entire career in his biography 'I'm Chevy Chase and You're Not'. I was always quite baffled as a kid as to why he stopped acting in big movies so I'm going to examining three films that marked the end of his professional career.
Fletch is a fantastic character opportunity. He's an investigator but he doesn't carry a gun so he's forced to talk his way in and out of situations and Chase makes a natural fit for this character. He excels at witty one liners and comebacks. Sadly, this film doesn't have as great a script as the first entry. The first film (based on Gregory McDonald's 1974 book) also had a fantastic mystery hook - an undercover journalist gets hired by a businessman to murder himself! The idea of someone inheriting a house from a forgotten relative just sounds like some bad mystery cliche. I'm still a little baffled that they didn't try adapting any of McDonald's ten superior Fletch novels. I can only guess they wanted to structure it for more around comedy moments for Chase - figuring that he, not McDonald, made the first film a hit.
That's not to say that the comedy bits aren't good. There's a fantastic bit where he uses a disguise to get onto the evangelist's tv show and begins faith healing people by slapping them with a bible. And there's also an inspired dream sequence where Fletch imagines living in his Southern mansion and everyone bursts into 'Zipper-dee-doo-dah' from Disney's Song of the South - complete with animated birds. What's missing is a decent mystery story running underneath. The writer Leon Capetanos (who also wrote Down and Out in Beverly Hills) doesn't seem to understand that a mystery is more than just setting up red herring after red herring and then revealing everything at the end. Too much emphasis seems to have been played on sticking in needless disguises which are clearly designed to be hilarious but mostly fall flat.
Another thing that probably didn't help the film is that the plot is somewhat similar to Funny Farm - a film where Chase played a writer who moves out to a country and makes enemies with the local townsfolk that came out one year earlier in 1988. I think one of Chase's weaknesses is that he didn't want to branch out with his roles. Clearly by the late 80s Chase had a choice to make, he'd had a good run for nearly a decade. He could either stick with the same wiseass antics or evolve into new roles. It's telling that in 1989 he made the decision to make not one but two sequels, this and Christmas Vacation. And the previous year he'd also did the laughter-free Caddyshack 2. Obviously Chase didn't want to evolve or if you want to be generous, maybe his management didn't want him to evolve. It's shame because I think he could have had a decent second career along the lines of his arch rival Bill Murray.
Fletch Lives isn't a great film but it's a decent watch and the jokes are pretty good. It's just nowhere near as classic as the original. Chase still gives the role a good shot but he's hampered by the weak script. Michael Ritchie's direction is decent. He also directed the original film and was the one who let Chase ad-lib a lot of his lines. I think if anyone can take anything away from this movie it's that you can't make a film just on ad-libs, comebacks and funny disguises. You need some meat on the bones. There's probably some metaphor about the movie trying to disguise it's lack of substance but I can't quite piece it together.
Next time: Dan Aykroyd drags Chase even further down in Nothing But Trouble