Maybe it was more than twenty years of hype that left me feeling disappointed in 'Fletch.' I'm a child of the '80s, but I somehow missed this Chevy Chase classic during its original theatrical release, not to mention its endless subsequent cable airings (if you ever had USA or TBS, then you know what I mean), but over the years, I kept hearing from folks who said the film was hilarious, a classic of the era, and that Chase had never been better, yadda yadda yadda. So now that I've finally seen the film, I have to be honest and say that I was underwhelmed. 'Fletch' is cute, but really, where's the comedic greatness?
Chase stars as Gregory McDonald's paperback hero Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher, aka "the only guy who changes his identity more than his underwear." He's a wisecracking newspaperman who cons his way through an investigation of a drug ring by assuming false identities and exuding an unflappable cool, even in the most incongruent situations. At the heart of the story is Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), an aviation executive who offers Fletch $50,000 to perform a rather unusual job -- he wants Fletch to kill him. This leads to all manner of complications, as Fletch finds himself adopting different identities in odd locations (a tennis club, a pig farm etc.), as well as falling in love with Stanwyk's beautiful wife Gail (Dana Wheeler Nicholson).
'Fletch' is bouncy and breezy and filled with some great lines, but I didn't find it truly hilarious, because it's wholly unbelievable. The characters act in a manner that defies any plausible semblance of sanity, and neither Chase nor director Michael Ritchie seem at all concerned with gleaning any sort of insight into human behaviors through Fletch's exploits. The story is simply a one-joke concept (if a funny one) that exists solely to provide a series of cute opportunities for Chase to don various disguises and make everyone else look stupid. (I kept thinking I was watching Chase in one of those Charlie Chan flicks from the '30s and '40s, only without the Fu Manchu make-up.) There's little excitement to the main mystery as we could care less about Matheson's villain, and ditto for the female characters, with Wheeler-Nicholson and future Oscar-winner Geena Davis (as "Larry," a cohort to Fletch) both wasted in accessory roles.
What I did get excited about in 'Fletch' was the hint of a subversive streak that kept threatening to elevate the film to the level of the truly sublime. Ritchie manages to paint at least a few wide strokes of biting satire, particularly the very '80s brand of anti-authority comedy. There's a residual anarchistic spirit that still possesses classics like 'Animal House,' enough that Chase seems to be channeling his smart-ass 'Saturday Night Live' days and sticking up his middle finger at the establishment in such scenes as when Fletch impersonates a Legionnaire and proceeds to upend a hall full of VFWs. It's the film's funniest moment, precisely because Fletch isn't just a party crasher but a genuine threat to the status quo. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie is Chase merely tricking folks into buying his shtick.
Given 'Fletch's status to some as a true comedy classic, I'm surprised it's such an innocuous film. I do agree that it showcases one of Chase's most committed performances, as he seems to revel in his assumed personas and is adept with the multitude of disguises he's asked to wear. I just wish the script had been a bit more biting and witty, and that any of the characters other than Fletch had mattered one whit to the plot. Such flaws don't prevent 'Fletch' from being rather enjoyable (I'm still giving it a barely-passable three stars), but it hardly seems more than an amusing time-waster. I must admit to remaining mystified at its continued cult appeal.
'Fletch' was remastered back in 2006 for the"Jane Doe" DVD edition, and Universal has mined that same source for this first-ever HD DVD version (and, given the imminent death of the format, the last). It's a perfectly nice catalog release, if not particularly exceptional.
Typical of mid-'80s material, there is pervasive grain throughout 'Fletch,' but it's kept in check, and the resulting image is nice and film-like. The source is also quite tidy, with very little dirt and no major blemishes. Colors are certainly improved over past video versions if not exactly bursting with saturation -- the film has a nice, even tone, with accurate fleshtones and little smearing or noise. Shadow delineation is perhaps the weak element here, with the transfer flattening out in darker scenes, where there is some loss of fine detail in the blacks and middling contrast. I also find Universal's tendency to over edge-enhancement their titles continually annoying, and if 'Fletch' is not as bad as some of their other recent efforts, there is enough ringing that I was distracted on more than one occasion. All in all, though, 'Fletch' looks pretty good.
Universal offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit) high-res track for 'Fletch,' along with English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (1.5mbps) and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (192kbps) options. Quite frankly, the studio shouldn't have bothered, for this is a pretty dreadful "surround" mix that's about as lifeless as Chevy Chase's career these days.
This mix is poorly balanced. There is next to no surround action at all, except for a couple of action-y scenes involving loud, blaring '80s tunes that horribly overpower the rest of the mix (have your remote's volume control ready).
Aside from that ear-sore, the rest of the mix is typical of the period. Dynamic range feels a bit cramped, with little oomph delivered to the subwoofer and an edge of harshness to the rest of the spectrum. Dialogue is decent, but it certainly doesn't pop. Again, there is about zero envelopment, so this might as well be a stereo mix. I'd probably rate the Audio a little higher considering Universal went to the trouble of giving us a TrueHD track, but given the obnoxious volume levels, I'm rating it lower.
Let the supplements on 'Fletch' be a warning to all future DVD producers -- don't make yourself the star of the show. This is a supremely irritating batch of "extras" that I really quite hated. (All the material is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, and there are no subtitle options.)
'Fletch' is considered by some to be a seminal '80s comedy, but having missed the film the first time around, it seemed a bit dated to my fresh eyes. Chevy Chase still has some funny moments, and I was always entertained, but a classic? Really? This HD DVD is a mixed bag. The video is nice, the audio hard on the ears, and the supplements insufferably smug. I guess 'Fletch' fans should run out and pick it up, but quite frankly this HD DVD only made me long for Warner to release the first 'Vacation' flick in high-def...