In 1985, Fletch took an interesting approach to Gregory McDonald’s novel—essentially keeping the same story but changing the tone, dialing down some of its darker elements and allowing star Chevy Chase to give the character some charm that the novel version often lacked. It worked; the film remains one of Chase’s most revered vehicles, and even McDonald himself was ultimately pleased with the results. But the creative team behind the sequel Fletch Lives opted to ignore McDonald’s existing novels (11 in all) and create their own story, one that was seemingly reverse engineered from a desire to put Chase in as many “funny” costumes as possible. The gambit didn’t work for fans of the first movie or of McDonald’s novels, and the series has been in hibernation ever since. Now, more than 30 years later, the world is finally being given another proper adaptation of the late author’s award-winning series, with Jon Hamm taking over as Irwin Maurice Fletcher, alias “Fletch.”
Confess, Fletch is (fittingly) the second book McDonald released, and director Greg Mottola (who wrote the script with Zeb Borow) saw no need to give audiences a proper reintroduction to the character—for better and for worse. In the opening scene, Fletch discovers a woman’s corpse in his apartment and, despite calling the police himself, becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Not a bad start for a mystery, but it ultimately plays second fiddle to a more complicated plot about an art collection. As we learn when the cops come, this isn’t Fletch’s actual apartment, but one he’s crashing at while he’s in Boston attempting to help his girlfriend Angela (Lorenza Izzo) find some paintings that were stolen from her family—which are now needed to pay the ransom for her kidnapped father, the Count de Grassi.
It’s the sort of plot setup you might expect to unfold over a film’s first act, but—as was the case in McDonald’s novel, to which the film is very faithful—these events occurred before the opening credits. Mottola and Borow do toss in a helpful flashback depicting Fletch and Angela’s courtship, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is a mystery about our returning hero in a world he has no established connection to, trying to solve the murder of someone we don’t know, while looking for some paintings that were stolen years ago, in hopes of rescuing a character we’ve never met. In other words, it’s not the most graceful way to revive the character for a new audience.
Propelling the awkward story along, of course, is Fletch himself. Hamm (who also produced) proves to be a solid choice for the character; after 20+ years of younger casting choices coming and going, it’s as funny as anything in the film that the role finally went forward with someone who is even older than Chase was at the time of the sequel. Not that it lacks laughs; Hamm delivers some standout sarcastic replies and occasional off-the-cuff nonsense that even Chase himself might applaud (one highlight: Fletch warding off a snooping witness by telling him his friend was chewed up by swimming into a boat propeller). His repartee with lead investigator Monroe (Roy Wood Jr., essentially the novel’s Flynn character; the name change dictated by some rights issues) is often delightful.
That said, it’s hard not to wish John Slattery had been cast as Monroe instead, if only to give the two old scene partners more time to interact; Slattery only has a few on-screen minutes as Frank, Fletch’s old boss, and it’s a shame they couldn’t find more places for him to show up. Veteran pros like Marcia Gay Harden and Kyle MacLachlan drop in as the film’s most colorful characters (MacLachlan dancing to EDM music is a sight to behold), while Ayden Mayeri earns scene-stealer status as Griz, Monroe’s trainee partner and frequent Fletch target.
But as solid as the laughs and cast are, they can’t fully compensate for such a weirdly stake-free story. A few late reveals explain away some of the plot’s lack of tension, but the film’s trailer actually does a better job of setting up the plot than the film itself. The cops seem to have no other suspects for the murder besides Fletch, who in turn seems more interested in following leads about the art theft than he is about clearing his name. As in the novel (minor spoiler here), the two cases are connected—but even that revelation does little to escalate things, as the murderer doesn’t seem to be trying to kill Fletch or anyone else, rendering that side of the mystery borderline irrelevant when all is said and done.
Fletch also finds the paintings relatively early, keeping any intrigue about that storyline at bay until the (not too hard to guess) culprit is revealed and explains how/why a murder got added to their list of crimes. Our hero’s smug indifference is part of his character, yes, but in the first film they made up for that by changing the book to be more big-screen worthy, adding car chases and such to spice up McDonald’s shaggy (but still more engaging) mystery. There is precious little of such material here; most of the film’s “action” revolves around repetitive scenes of the hero dodging his police tail or quietly sneaking around the marina where the paintings are being stored.
In fact, quietly describes a lot of Fletch’s actions; the film might have been improved if Hamm followed Chase’s lead and provided voiceover narration both to clarify the largely offscreen events that instigate the story and add a few more jokes during some of the increasingly frequent lulls. And it doesn’t help that the climax mostly makes Fletch look like a buffoon, as if Hamm decided he would revive Clark Griswold as well (though to Mottola’s credit, he does improve on McDonald’s climax, in which Fletch had no final confrontation with the killer at all).
As a return of a big-screen favorite, it’s perhaps a bit too slipshod for its own good, lacking the fun chase scenes and romantic interludes that helped make the first film such a beloved favorite. Hamm and Izzo have relatively few scenes together, with the age discrepancy (not present in the book; Fletch was only a few years older than her, while Hamm has nearly 20 years on Izzo) providing yet another example of the film’s biggest hurdle: it’s an overly faithful adaptation of a book that wasn’t altogether camera-ready. Fans of the novel will likely be pleased to see it properly represented outside of a few name changes and direct nods to the older films (Fletch’s Lakers hat—an invention of the 1985 movie—actually plays a plot point), but fans of Chevy’s version as a whole might end up wishing they charged their tickets to the Underhills.
Side note: It means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but native New Englanders such as myself will likely appreciate that someone did their local homework, as Massachusetts’ policy against fireworks serves as a minor plot point, and there’s even a throwaway reference to Caldor of all things. It’s also perhaps the world’s first Boston-set movie to not throw in images of rowers on the Charles or the Citgo sign, so that’s novel enough to be lauded. And bless: Even though it was actually shot in Massachusetts, almost no “Hahvahd Yaaahhd” accents!