In Fletch, Chase stays on the surface more than he did in Vacation. In fact, if he played the klutz too much the movie would fall apart; Fletch the soft-boiled hero has to show derring-do in order to solve his mystery. But Chase is using scenes to build character rather than just toss off a few lines. Take his gate-crashing at a swank tennis-club. Dressed immaculately in whites, Chase as Fletch looks decidedly at home. The obvious joke is built around his charging his food and drink to the bill of an obnoxious man he hears berating a waiter unfairly. But Chase’s compulsive overtipping, even though it’s part of the routine, gives us enough of Fletch’s insecurity to add a little resonance.
Unfortunately, much of this goes for naught under the direction of the ham-fisted Michael Ritchie. Throughout his career, Ritchie has strained for satirical humor, a laudable goal in un-socially-conscious Hollywood. Yet he has chosen the easiest possible targets: beauty contests (Smile), pro football and pop psychology (Semi-Tough), and survivalism (The Survivors). And his approach is that of a man pitching elephants at the sides of barns. Ritchie will flatten out a character with a steamroller in order to create a laughable figure, so whatever point he tries to make gets turned back on itself.
With a bestselling novel to work from (not to mention a screenplay by pricey Andrew Bergman), Ritchie has to stay pretty close to the sacred text. Under the circumstances, the easiest way to evoke some extra humor should be from the supporting players, and he has cast quite a few familiar faces: M. Emmet Walsh as a society doctor, Kenneth Mars as a millionaire, and Joe Don Baker as a corrupt police chief. Yet for the most part those actors have their two minutes on screen and then goodbye. Ritchie doesn’t even whisk them on and off, dispensing with the usual character building practice of letting talented performers making entrance and exits; they’re all just soft of there when the scenes begin. And bug-eyed Richard Libertini, who has a running part as Fletch’s harried editor, was evidently directed to play his part as dryly as possible.
Ritchie has the same problem with offhand visual humor. Richard Lester has made a living out of filling his frames to the brim with competing bits of little shtick. When Ritchie tries it in the scene where Fletch parks his car in front of a moving street cleaner (which then has to detour around it) everything else comes to a complete halt. Ritchie can’t figure out a way to juggle two actions the same time, so he cuts what could be a single-shot off-the-cuff joke into a labored, over-edited device.
If any pattern is developing in Chase’s career, it’s this four steps forward, three steps back. If his history holds true, he should follow Fletch with a disaster à la Deal of the Century. In the meantime, he is stretching out, and he remains about the only screen performer who can make average white guys funny.