Why is Fletch so damn good? I know it seems like a strange question. But it's actually sort of hard to put your finger on. The film is a beloved classic, and is regarded today as one of Chevy Chase's finest roles. But what makes it so memorable? There are a lot of great moments, for sure. There's some hilarious dialogue. Chase's usual brand of 80's as a deadpan wiseass is well-suited for this character. But he coasts through his performance with blithe indifference. The story is engaging, but Andrew Bergman's screenplay is loosely-plotted. The direction, by Michael Ritchie, gets it done, but it’s hardly exceptional. So why is this movie so good? How does it manage to add up to more than the sum of its parts? I think I know the answer. There's one more element that I haven't mentioned. It underlies, contextualizes, and anchors everything else. It creates a backbone that elevates Fletch to greatness. I'm referring to the film's dark edge of injustice, brutality, and danger.
By the 1980’s, the golden age of postwar economic expansion was a distant memory. Growth was stagnant and inflation was high. Wages fell and unemployment rose. A decline in manufacturing, rising oil prices, and a stock market crash left Americans poorer at the end of the 1970’s than at the beginning -- the first time that had happened since the 1930’s. In this climate of dissatisfaction, Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1980 after stoking racial tensions and promising to "make America great again." In his first term, he weakened labor unions, deregulated industries, and reduced taxes for the wealthiest Americans. The idea was that the wealth would trickle down. Instead, economic and racial inequality rushed up. But what does this have to do with anything? Isn't this a movie about Chevy Chase wearing goofy disguises? Why bring up Reaganomics? Because economic inequality is a major subtext of Fletch. Money, or the lack thereof, is a constant presence, from the first moments of the movie, to its final words.
Irwin M. Fletcher (“Fletch”) is an investigative journalist, posing undercover as a junkie on the beach. But his own financial position isn't really all that much better. When wealthy executive, Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), offers him a thousand dollars to hear a shady proposal, Fletch is suspicious. He plays along to get more information, but he also needs the money! No sooner does he take the thousand dollars, then he hands it over to his ex-wife’s lawyer for an alimony payment. Meanwhile, his investigation of Stanwyk takes him up and down the economic strata: from a mansion to a farmhouse, from a tennis club cabana to an airplane hangar. He encounters titans of industry, immigrant waiters, gun-toting rednecks, mechanics, and of course, the Underhills. Case in point: Fletch's visit to Stanwyk's parents in Provo, Utah. They're pig farmers who sit on the porch drinking lemonade and drawling things like: "Boy, what in the hell's a’matter with you?" They could have stumbled right out of 'American Gothic.' And they couldn't be more at odds with the Alan Stanwyk we've already met: haughty, preening with a tailored suit and a neutral accent. What changed? His economic status. The importance of money is reiterated even as the film’s end credits roll. Fletch and Stanwyk's wife, Gail (Dana Wheeler Nicholson), walk along a beach in Rio de Janeiro… all charged to the Underhills, of course!
Racial injustice is also present in the film, although it's not a major theme. It's hard not to notice that the young black junkie, Gummy, is a regular victim of police brutality. When he shows up with a black eye, he explains that the cops are "always beating up on" him. Later, we see it first-hand. In 2020, it's easy to find relevance in these scenes. Aside from the attacks on Gummy though, race is not a big part of Fletch. But police brutality and corruption run rampant. Police Chief Karlin, played to despicable, scenery-chewing perfection by Joe Don Baker, is a monster. He blackmails ex-convicts, deals drugs, and longs for the good old days of extrajudicial killing. Police officers break and enter, assault the innocent, and plant bags of heroin. They're an example of the kind of establishment villainy that was common in 80’s movies. These police officers would be as happy to chase Rambo as Fletch. And much like the cops in First Blood, they are the product of a post-Vietnam sensibility. In Fletch, these establishment villains are especially potent. They are avatars of economic oppression.
This is the world that Fletch inhabits: brutal, unequal, and unjust. His cool, wise-ass demeanor becomes a lot more compelling in this context. With the wrong material, Chevy Chase's vacant, laconic acting style can be deadening. But as Fletch navigates these dangers, his laid-back confidence seems downright heroic. Even Chase's infamous arrogance and mean streak seem to track within this context. If you sense angry resentment beneath the placid surface of Fletch's quick wit, all the better. Look at the people he's going up against.
Fletch's victory isn't only about solving a mystery. It's subtle, but he also strikes a blow against brutality and economic injustice. He topples the establishment figurehead, Chief Karlin. And he prevents the wealthy Stanwyk from escaping with his drug-smuggling money. In their place, he elevates Gummy and Fat Sam when he brings them from the beach to the newspaper office. There's a nice symmetry to it, and a touch of Saturnalian role reversal. The slaves feast, and the masters serve... time, that is! It's not outrageous to read Fletch as a Trickster God for the modern world, enacting economic justice.
So why is Fletch so damn good? Yes, it's an entertaining, funny movie with an engaging story and good performances. But there are plenty of entertaining, funny movies with engaging stories and good performances. What makes Fletch different? That dark edge. If you remove the elements of injustice, brutality, and danger, it simply wouldn't work as well. And I can prove it, because they tried doing just that. It's called Fletch Lives, and if you don't believe me, go give it a watch. Everything else is there: Chevy Chase, goofy disguises, funny dialogue, a mystery to solve. The only thing missing is the edge. Spoiler alert: it’s bad.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite, often found in semi-aimless wander. Edward is pleased and honored to contribute to the most excellent Story Screen.