Sunday, May 13, 2012

The flops of Chevy Chase part 1: Fletch Lives (1989)

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.

The sequel sees I.M. Fletcher still writing his newspaper column, getting harassed by his boss but before he can take on another undercover assignment he learns that his aunt has died and he's inherited her mansion in Louisiana. Thinking the house must be worth loads he quits his job and flies over to check it out. However rather than being some stately mansion it's a rundown, woodworm infested wreck. After some quick flirting with his aunt's lawyer, Fletch winds up bedding her but waking up the next morning he discovers she's dead. Someone is clearly trying to frame him but who? Is it his aunt's black caretaker, the local television evangelist or any one of the oddball inhabitants of the nearby town? And just what is it that makes his mansion so valuable to them all?

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


  1. I personally love this movie, that scene where he says "demons OUT!" and pushes the person back as if he was some funny. Or when he says "Hi Ben nice to meet you!" But your right, the first one is obviously the better of the two.

    Funny Farm is one of my favorite Chase films, also cracks me up. I even love him in Dan Aykroyd's Nothing But Trouble (1991), which was a flop that I find amusing. I'm a big Chevy Chase fan, I just hated how his career was destroyed by bad films like Cops and Robersons (1994) me thats when his career started to fall, with that particular film.

  2. Man, you could devote an entirely new blog to Chevy Chase flops! Haven't seen this one, but I suppose I'll get around to it eventually. Can't wait to see what other Chase bombs you'll review this month!

  3. Franco: Yeah, I like Fletch Lives too - there's enough good jokes here and there to make it work, just a shame they forgot about making it a good mystery.

    Eek, don't think you'll like my next entry on Nothing But Trouble - struggled to defend that one. I agree Cops and Robbersons was the death nail for Chase career stopping but I think the three films that preceded it are just as culpable (for different reasons).

    Mitch: Yeah Chase has had quite a varied career. When he's good, he's great but when he sucks, he really sucks.

  4. Hey no worries man, Nothing But Trouble is not a "good" movie and I know it. I just find pleasure in some aspects of it, some of the art design and the characters, but we'll talk about it when you review it.

  5. I remember you brought up this movie when I talked about the first Fletch on my blog. I agree that its odd they didn't adapt one of the many books and used an original story for the sequel. I might check this out eventually as I quite liked Fletch and enjoy Chevy Chase.

  6. Hey Chris, yeah your review of Fletch inspired me to go back and have a look at a few of Chase's flicks. Fletch Lives is worth maybe one watch but it's not essential viewing by any means. If you're interested in the books Fletch's Fortune or Fletch Won were probably my next favourites after the original book. You can probably pick them up for next to nothing.