Oh, that Fletch! He's an investigative reporter, a master of disguise, a veritable lawn sprinkler of bons mots. He gets the girl, and he gets the guys who get his goat. There's some wit in "Fletch," but the Pulitzer goes to whoever can dig up more than six laughs in this plodding action comedy.
Based on the novel by Gregory McDonald, "Fletch" is a vehicle for Chevy Chase, the erstwhile Saturday Night Live-wire whose star has ended up somewhere in the Oort Cloud. As Irwin Fletcher, undercover junkie, he's working on a story about drug dealing by the harborside when a young millionaire (a serviceable Tim Matheson) offers him a proposition: murder me Saturday night, he says, put me out of the misery of my bone cancer, and fifty grand is yours.
Fletch smells a story, and in the guises of surgeon, SEC investigator, country club smoothie, roller-skating swami, and so forth, he ferrets it out. But not before the audience, which has figured out the whole megillah from square one. Along the way, screenwriter Andrew Bergman provides some hit-or-miss absurdist one-liners, lots of gay-baiting, and more eighth-grade humor than any movie needs.
Once in a while, though, the script surprises you (there's a fun satire of pro basketball) and its construction is competently workmanlike. The story's biggest problem is the action element, which always seems tacked on (there's a car chase because, well, there's always a car chase). Director Michael Ritchie brings a stately wryness to "Fletch," but what it really needs is energy, the cut-loose edge of insanity of a Blake Edwards. And he squanders a supporting cast that includes M. Emmet Walsh, Richard Libertini and Joe Don Baker, some of the finest character actors around, all of whom sleepwalk through the movie.
But these guys are three balls of fire compared to Chase -- sleepy-eyed and well-padded, he looks like he's just eaten a big meal. He's not laid-back, he's prostrate. The movie needs an actor with a talent for mimicry and bravado, while Chase's gimmick has always been his ability to transcend difficulties simply with his own suavity -- he's always Chevy Chase, the human shock absorber. Here, he sees Fletch as Mr. Casual, an inveterate mutterer, but he ends up swallowing some of Bergman's best lines. In a movie that relies on its gags, that's death. Fletch