Disney’s Zootopia is the kind of animated film that passes with flying colors in just about every damn category it needs to, making it a thoroughly endearing classic that will stand the test of time and delight countless new fans as time goes on. It’s the best of its kind since last year’s Inside Out, and one that will be hard to top this time around. It’s got the most treasurable kind of story, one that has all the fun, flash and zip that the kids will take a shine to, some hilariously subversive and cheeky humour for the the adults to chuckle at, and some vital, important messages within its themes that adults will knowingly relate to, and the kids will subconsciously perceive. Never preachy nor pandering, all of its ingredients are mixed harmoniously. And let’s talk about that animation, good lord. Every year these films get more cutting edge and eye boggling, and this one busts the blueprints in its attempts to dazzle, with every kind of texture, glint and rendered gold on display. Animals of all shapes and sizes run, scamper, dart and dive throughout the film, to the point where I felt that only with multiple viewings could I appreciate every loving detail and subtle joke. Ginnifer Goodwin gives perky vocals to Judy Hops, a small town bunny who dreams of being a big city cop. Just leagues away from the tiny carrot farm she was raised on lies Zootopia, a sprawling metropolis where the denizens of the animal kingdom live in civilization, or rather, their brilliantly realized version of it. She is told time and time again that she’ll never become a cop, but pays no heed. And whadd’ya know, she becomes a cop. Left to rot on parking duty by stern bison Sergeant Bogo (growly Idris Elba) she fumes and longs for real action. Soon she meets wily fox and street hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman in possibly the best vocal performance in years), and both are whisked away on an adventure through Zootopia to find some bad cats (and every other creature imaginable) who are up to no good. The city itself is a marvel in every sense of the word. Divided into detailed, vast and climatized zones including Tundra Town, Little Rodentia (laughed hardest at this sequence, purely inspired) and a subtropical tree house lined Rainforest area. The cast has buckets of fun, including JK Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as Judy’s endearing parents, Tommy Chong as a yak hippie, Peter Mansbridge as Peter ‘Moosebridge’, and more. Shakira shows up essentially as herself in animal form, with an original composition called ‘Try Everything’ which gives the film a lot of its charm and heart. Bateman just has to be commended for a performance so full of real conflict and shades of grey its hard to belive hes playing a fox in a Disney flick. Despite being in the most hyper real of all genres, hes walked right out of real life amd nails every note. There’s so many highlights I could write for pages, but I won’t spoil the fun, of which there’s no end. There’s also a very grounded head on the film’s shoulders, saying some important things about not giving up on your dreams (sounds clichéd, I know, but not the way the writing addresses it here), and never assuming one thing about a specific group of animals just because of the way a few of them behave. Subversive stuff for a kids movie, and I’d have it no other way, as the undercurrents of film forge minds and opinions for the young ones. Simply put, it’s destined to be a classic, and comes up a winner no matter how you look at it. Oh, and try not to bust a gut laughing at the sloth sequence, I dare you.
Neil Jordan’s film version of Interview With The Vampire is simultaneously one of the most sumptuous and tedious visions of the affliction to ever hit cinema. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely gorgeous, atmospheric and old worlde glance at two damned souls who carry out their macabre destiny with flair and vicious grace. I say tedious as some kind of bitter compliment, because no other film has quite captured the internal torture of eternity or the nocturnal gloom that must prevail over such an existence quite as well as this film has. It barely runs over two hours and we feel like we’ve been planted in front of the screen for years. Such is the dedication of director Jordan, a sneakily versatile gent who augments his stylistic and tonal approach to whatever material he is working with. The film is exciting and raises a pulse, but only on its terms, and for long periods of time we sit through languishing despair that no doubt adds to the mood, but exists to serve the psyches of our two leads, and dares the viewer to suffer alongside them. I have somewhat of a bone to pick with certain producers behind the scenes who no doubt had a forceful hand in the casting of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. You see, author Ann Rice had her heart set on a filmic version starring Rutger Hauer as Lestat, and Lance Henriksen as Louie. Now, Cruise and Pitt are at the utter opposite end of casting types in Hollywood, and while Jordan is never a guy to compromise or chase stars right off that bat, I am still sour when I think of the film we’ll never see, starring two actors infinitely more fascinating and vampiric that Brad and Tom. Nevertheless, I have som much appreciation for the film that I can’t take it too hard, and remain a steadfast fan. Pitt plays Louie, a depressed Louisiana plantation owner with nothing left, especially to lose. He meets roaming vampire Lestat (Cruise), who promptly turns him, and the two embark on a century spanning odyssey of nighttime escapades, thoroughly fraught with homoeroticism. It’s isn’t so much an organized narrative as it is a lengthy look at these two, trapped by their condition and making the bitter best of it. They meet others along the way, including Armand (a slinky Antonio Banderas), Santiago (Jordan regular Stephen Rhea, lively evil incarnate) and Claudia, a child who Louie turns. She’s played by Kirsten Dunst in the best performance of the film. A young girl with the vampire curse thrust upon her at such an age, who mentally matures into a steely, furious woman trapped in the body of a ten year old. Not many actresses could succeed at that, but she is a spitfire little shryke who dominates every scene. All this is being retold by Louie to a 1990’s journalist (Christian Slater) who morphs from bemused disbelief to cold terror, and eventual morbid fascination. It’s a slog to get through, but an ornately beautiful one with some really bloody effects and the always terrific stewardship of Neil Jordan, whose films are never short of mesmerizing, whichever genre they fall into. A dark, dingy horror with lacy elegance at its core.
I feel like part of the reason why DreamWorks’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron works so well (Ebert noted this in his excellent review) is the fact that none of the animals talk. Although the titular horse is given internal narration by Matt Damon (of all people), not once does Spirit, or any other creature ever speak themselves. This allows for more time spent on music, visuals and storytelling free from banter or exposition. When you have a movie with such sweeping scope and majestic beauty, it’s nice to just relax and let it wash over you, almost like a music video. I’ll always love 2D animation, and here its done exquisitely, the wild frontier rendered in richly colored strokes, the horses vividly brought to life through the illustrations. It’s one of the last classic 2D outings, before the eventual switch to computer generated stuff. Don’t get me wrong I’m just as in love with 3D animation, but I will always have deep nostalgic pangs for this style as well. Someone once told me that cinema is the only art form in which every single artistic medium you can think of can all inhabit the same space, interacting and complimenting each other to create a symphony for all the senses and perceptions. Spirit is a shining example: exceptional drawing and animation, terrific voice acting, and the music, which is a standout. Both the stirring score by Hans Zimmer and the original songs by Bryan Adams are heartfelt compositions which soar along with the visuals in perfect harmony. Spirit is a wild young mustang, who is captured by a vicious Colonel, gruffy baritoned by James Cromwell. He tries to train the horse and break him, but Spirit has that wild spark of vitality that any protagonist of the animal kingdom must posess. He refuses to give in, never losing hope of one day returning to his herd. He is befriended by young native man Little Creek (Daniel Studi) who is also searching for home. The two form an adventurous bond, putting them against man and nature to return to their origins. Mountains, valleys, corals, trees and the untamed northwest wilderness are all presented in a fashion so gorgeous that the colors nearly pop off the screen. It’s just terrific entertainment through and through, never too silly, sappy or frightening, hitting all the right notes along the whole breadth of its breezy 80 minute runtime. DreamWorks doesn’t often give Disney a run for its money, but consider this a glowing exception.
Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.
Have you ever spent hours organizing your record collection in chronological order and by genre? Have you ever had heated debates with your friends about the merits of a band who lost one of its founding members? Or argued about your top five favorite B-sides? If so, chances are you will love High Fidelity (2000), a film for and about characters obsessed with their favorite bands and music. What Free Enterprise (1999) did for film geeks; High Fidelity does for music geeks. Based on the British novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, it is a film made by and for the kind of people who collect vintage vinyl and read musician and band biographies in their spare time yet is still accessible to people who like smart, witty romantic comedies.
Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is an obsessed music junkie who owns a record store called Championship Vinyl. He has just broken up with Laura (Iben Hjejle), a long-time girlfriend and the latest in a countless string of failed relationships. Rob addresses the audience directly throughout the film (just like Woody Allen did in his 1977 film, Annie Hall) about this latest break-up and how his top five break-ups of all-time inform his most recent one. It’s a great way for Rob to try and come to terms with his shortcomings and the reasons why his past relationships did not work out. He is talking directly to us and in doing so we relate to him and his dilemma a lot easier. And so, he goes on a quest to find out why, as he puts it, “is doomed to be left, doomed to be rejected,” by revisiting his worst break-ups. The purpose of this trip down memory lane is an attempt to understand his most recent falling out with Laura.
Along the way we meet a colorful assortment of characters, from his past girlfriends (that includes the diverse likes of Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones) to his co-workers at Championship Vinyl (Jack Black and Todd Louiso). They really flesh out the film to such a degree that I felt like I was seeing aspects of my friends and myself in these characters. Being a self-confessed obsessive type when it comes to film and music, I could easily relate to these people and their problems. And that’s why High Fidelity works so well for me. The extremely funny and wryly observant script by D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack (the same team behind the excellent Grosse Pointe Blank) not only zeroes in on what it is to love something so passionately but why other things (like relationships) often take a backseat as a result. A girlfriend might not always be there for you, but your favorite album or film will. A song will never judge you or walk out on you and there is a kind of comfort in that.
The screenplay also makes some fantastic observations on how men view love and relationships. Throughout the film Cusack’s character delivers several monologues to us about his thoughts on past love affairs, one of my favorite being the top five things he liked about Laura. It’s a touching, hopelessly romantic speech that reminded me a lot of Woody Allen’s list of things to live for in Manhattan (1979). Usually, this technique almost never works (see Kuffs) because it often comes across as being too cute and self-aware for its own good but in High Fidelity it works because Cusack uses it as a kind of confessional as Rob sorts out his feelings for Laura and sorts through past relationships and how they led him to her.
The screenplay works so well because not only is it well written but it is brought to life by a solid ensemble cast. The role of Rob Gordon is clearly tailor-made for John Cusack. Rob contains all the trademarks of the kinds of characters the actor is known for: the cynical, self-deprecating humor, the love of 1980s music, and the inability to commit to the woman of his dreams. Even though High Fidelity is not directed by Cusack, like Grosse Pointe Blank, it is clearly his film, right down to the casting of friends in front of and behind the camera (i.e. actors Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, his sister Joan, and screenwriters, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink). Along with Say Anything (1989), this is Cusack’s finest performance. I like that he isn’t afraid to play Rob as a hurtful jerk afraid of commitment despite being surrounded by strong women, like his mother who chastises him for breaking up Laura, and his sister Liz (Joan Cusack) who is supportive at first until she finds out why he and Laura really broke up. Rob had an affair with someone else while Laura was pregnant and as a result she got an abortion. This horrible act runs the risk of alienating Rob from the audience but Cusack’s natural charisma keeps us hanging in there to see if Rob can redeem himself.
All of the scenes that take place in the record store are some of the most entertaining and funniest moments in the film, from Rob listing off his top five side one, track ones, to Barry schooling an Echo and the Bunnymen fan on The Jesus and Mary Chain, to Rob fantasizing about beating the shit out of Laura’s new boyfriend Ian (Tim Robbins) when he shows up one day to clear the air. These scenes showcase the excellent comic timing of Cusack and his co-stars, Jack Black and Todd Louiso. The interplay between their characters instantly conveys that they’ve known each other for years by the way they banter and bicker.
Louiso’s Dick is a shy, introverted guy that you can imagine listening to Belle and Sebastian religiously, while Black’s Barry is a rude, annoying blowhard who says everything you wish you could actually say in public. It’s a flashy, scene-stealing role that Black does to perfection, whether it is discussing the merits of Evil Dead II’s soundtrack with Rob or doing a spot-on cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” for the launch of Rob’s record label. And yet, Barry isn’t overused and only appears at the right moments and for maximum comic effect. His sparing usage in High Fidelity made me want to see more of him, which is why he works so well. However, Louiso, with his quiet, bashful take on Dick, is the film’s secret weapon. The scene where he tells a customer (Sara Gilbert) about Green Day’s two primary influences which is a nice example of the understatement he brings to the role.
The casting of Danish actress Iben Hjejle is an atypical choice but one that works because she brings an emotional strength and an intelligence to a character that is largely absent from a lot of female romantic leads. She’s not traditionally beautiful, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays one of Rob’s ex-girlfriends, Charlie Nicholson. Sure, Charlie is drop-dead gorgeous but her personality is so off-putting that any kind of deep, meaningful relationship would be impossible. Laura is so much more than that. While Rob refuses to change and to think about the future, Laura is more adaptable, changing jobs to one that she actually enjoys doing even if it means she can’t have her hair dyed some exotic color. Laura is easily Rob’s intellectual equal, if not smarter, and the voice of reason as well as having no problem calling him on his shit.
Nick Hornby’s book was optioned by Disney’s Touchstone division in 1995 where it went into development for the next three years. Disney boss Joe Roth had a conversation with recording executive Kathy Nelson who recommended John Cusack (whom she had worked with on Grosse Pointe Blank) and his screenwriting and producing partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink adapt the book. They wrote a treatment that was immediately green-lit by Roth. In adapting the book into a screenplay, Cusack found that the greatest challenge was pulling off Rob’s frequent breaking of the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. They did this to convey Rob’s inner confessional thoughts and were influenced by a similar technique in Alfie (1966). However, Cusack initially rejected this approach because he thought, “there’d just be too much of me.” Once director Stephen Frears came on board, he suggested utilizing this approach and Cusack and his writing partners decided to go for it.
The writers decided to change the book’s setting from London to Chicago because they were more familiar with the city and it also had a “great alternative music scene,” said Pink. Not to mention, both he and Cusack were from the city. I like how they shot so much of the film on location, making the city like another character and even including visual references to local record labels like Touch & Go and Wax Trax! Another challenge they faced was figuring out which songs would go where in High Fidelity because Rob, Dick and Barry “are such musical snobs.” Cusack, DeVincentis and Pink listened to 2,000 songs and picked a staggering 70 cues for the film. DeVincentis was the record-collection obsessive among the writers with 1,000 vinyl records in his collection and thousands of CDs and cassettes. They also thought of the idea to have Rob have a conversation with Bruce Springsteen in his head, never thinking they’d actually get him to be in the film but that putting him in the script would get the studio excited about it. They were inspired by a reference in Hornby’s book where the narrator wishes he could handle his past girlfriends as well as Springsteen does in the song, “Bobby Jean” on Born in the USA. Cusack knew the Boss socially, called the musician and pitched the idea. Springsteen asked for a copy of the script and after reading it, agreed to do the film.
High Fidelity is now a historical document thanks to the rise of iTunes and the subsequent demise of brick and mortar record stores. The film is a tribute to these places where one could spend hours sifting through bins of vinyl records and used CDs, looking for that forgotten gem or a rare deal on something you were looking for. I’m not talking about places like Tower Records or Virgin Megastore but those cool, local stores that catered to obsessive collectors. This film is a love letter and a eulogy to these stores. It’s scary to think that it’s only been more than ten years since High Fidelity came out and indie record stores are almost an extinct breed, except for the ones hanging on in big cities. Even though the world and the characters in High Fidelity are unashamedly of a rarified type: the obsessive music geek or elitist, which some people may have trouble relating to, the film’s conclusion suggests that there is much more to life than one’s all-consuming passion for these things. It also helps to be passionate about someone. And that message is delivered in a refreshingly honest and cliché-free fashion as it provides what is ultimately the humanist core of High Fidelity.
Tony Scott’s Spy Game is a kinetic yet heartfelt espionage thriller that sees the director maintain considerable shards of his assaulting sensory overdrive of style, whilst pausing along the way for a story that is really rooted in the personal story of the bond and friendship between two men. A lot of his films are predominantly visual and auditory, a bullet train of sound and fury, with plot and characterization as passengers onboard. Here those elements are cogs in the machine, resulting in a very touching, extremely exciting outing and perhaps the director’s most overlooked piece. Robert Redford used to be the younger, more naive faction in a lot of cinematic pairings, especially with Paul Newman. Here he flips the coin, taking on the grizzled mantle of both father figure and mentor to Brad Pitt. Pitt is Tom Bishop, an operative taken under the wing of veteran agent Nathan D. Muir (Redford). Nathan no doubt sees some of himself in the lad, and takes a shine to him, grooming him with all the skills and cunning that a lifetime in the business has given him. Life throws curveballs though, and more often than not they involve love. Bishop has gone rogue in an attempt to rescue relief worker Elizabeth Hadley (the brilliant Catherine McCormack, who needs to be in more movies) from a Chinese prison. In his eagerness he is captured, leaving Muir to make some tough decisions, pull some hidden cards and use all of his talent and resources to extract them. Now in many films like this there would be several blistering action set pieces to show how it’s done. Scott instead chooses to give Redford the intellectual grit and subversive genius to pull hidden strings and come up with a wicked fun solution that is endlessly more satisfying than an explosion ridden shock and awe campaign. His struggle to get his friend back is laced with flashbacks of his training, with a 70’s flavour that feels authentic and writing that lovingly builds the blocks of their dynamic. Stephen Dillane provides wonderfully understated work as a quietly smarmy CIA prick, and watch for a quick appearance from the great Charlotte Rampling. To see Scott’s frenetic aesthetic hired for a script that takes its time and plays out less like a conventional thriller and more like the paced, elliptical spy thrillers of years past (vaguely reminiscent of aspects of Le Carré) is a somewhat rare treat. Terrific thriller with Redford at his best, highly, highly recommended.
Has it really been more than 30 years since Fletch (1985) was first released in theaters? For my money, it is still the best film Chevy Chase ever made (with Caddyshack a very close second). I can put the film on at almost any time and still find it just as funny, no matter how many times I have seen it. And yet, it is too often dismissed as just another dated piece of 1980s pop culture. To be sure, the soundtrack is horribly dated (Stephanie Mills’ “Bit by Bit” anyone?) but this part of the film’s charm. It is also often cited as the rare highlight of Chase’s career that subsequently went downhill over the years. But Fletch has endured, thanks in large part to repeated broadcasts on television channels like TBS and rock-steady video rentals (with revenues of $24 million in the United States alone). So why does Fletch continue to inspire such a strong and loyal following after all these years? It is simple: insanely quotable dialogue, a colorful assortment of character actors and, of course, Chase’s inimitable, vintage smart-ass persona.
When he’s not avoiding his ex-wife’s attorney – Arnold T. Pants, Esq. (George Wyner) – Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher (Chase) is an investigative reporter who writes under the anonymous pen name Jane Doe for a Los Angeles newspaper. He is currently looking into the local drug trade on the beach and its links to police corruption when he is approached by Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), a rich businessman who tells him that he is dying from bone cancer. He wants to pay Fletch $50,000 to kill him. After doing some digging, he finds out that Stanwyk is lying and may also have some kind of involvement in the city’s drug trade. His investigation ends up connecting these two seemingly unrelated plots for an exciting finale.
Fletch originated from a novel of the same name by Gregory Mcdonald. According to the author, the idea for the character came from hearing “from other people in the newsroom about other reporters doing these things for stories, and that gave me an idea. He was running around in my head for quite some time before I actually wrote the book.” The novel was very successful and soon Hollywood came calling. His Fletch books were optioned around the mid to late 1970s but the author had the option of approving the actor cast to play Fletch. Mcdonald remembers that “everybody from 12 to 72 in Hollywood wanted to play Fletch. But I kept throwing a monkey wrench into their plans.” He rejected the likes of Burt Reynolds and Mick Jagger when the studio mentioned Chevy Chase as Fletch. Despite never really seeing the comedian in anything, Mcdonald agreed to this choice. Years before, the comedian’s manager had recommended Mcdonald’s books to him but showed no interest in them or playing Fletch. However, when an old friend and producer Alan Greisman and screenwriter Andrew Bergman got involved, Chase agreed to do the film. Mcdonald sent him a telegram saying, “I am delighted to abdicate the role of Fletch to you.”
Chevy Chase started out as a satirical writer for the Smothers Brothers, National Lampoon magazine, and Mad magazine. He started acting in a comedy workshop called Channel One in Greenwich Village in New York City. Chase learned the art of comedy through improvisation during his stint at the workshop. “A laugh is a surprise,” he once said in an interview, “and all humor is physical. I was always athletic, so that came naturally to me.” Chase shows a stellar range of physical comedy in Fletch. His technique ranges from broader displays, such as the dream sequence when he imagines himself as the unusually aggressive L.A. Lakers star power forward (“6’5″, 6’9″ with the Afro”), to more subtle bits such as when he bangs his nose into a door, posing as the accident-prone Mr. Poon.
Andrew Bergman was hired to adapt Mcdonald’s book into screenplay form. He was only 26-years-old when Mel Brooks transformed his first script, “Tex X,” about a black militant cowboy, into Blazing Saddles (1974). The money Bergman made from that script allowed him to stay in New York City where he wrote The In-Laws (1979), a brilliant black comedy starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Bergman went on to write several more screenplays for mediocre films in the ’80s before working on Fletch. Bergman remembers that he wrote the screenplay “very fast – I did the first draft in four weeks …Then there was a certain amount of improv, and something that we used to call dial-a-joke. Michael [Ritchie, the director] found this aircraft hanger, and called me and said we need a scene set in an aircraft hanger. So I wrote it that afternoon.” This, of course, became the scene where Fletch poses as an airplane mechanic by the name of G. Gordon Liddy and famously chastises the real mechanics that confront him about not using ballbearings. “It’s all ballbearings nowadays,” he says with hilarious mock-indignation. However, Mcdonald read the script was upset by how much it differed from his novel. He wrote the studio and listed his numerous issues with the script. Ritchie invited the author to the set of the film and then took him out to dinner where, according to Mcdonald, “Point by point, he showed me where I was wrong. I was beautifully chewed out.”
Director Michael Ritchie had much the same career arc as Bergman. He enjoyed success early on in theater and television, directing episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Dr. Kildare in the 1960s, before breaking into feature films with Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972) – both starring Robert Redford. After a successful run of films in the 1970s that included The Bad News Bears (1976), Ritchie directed mostly forgettable fare, like The Island (1983), until Fletch came along. According to actor Tim Matheson, Fletch was the first film Chase did after cleaning up a problem he had with drugs. Regardless, the studio hedged their bets and hired Ritchie to keep tabs on Chase. However, during principal photography, the director would do one take that adhered to the script and then another take where Chase was allowed to improvise. The comedian enjoyed the role and working with Ritchie as it allowed him to play a diverse collection of characters. He once said in an interview, “I love props, like wigs and buck-teeth and glasses. At one point I wear an Afro and play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There were some scenes where I didn’t recognize myself.”
Fletch is essentially a vehicle tailor-made for Chase. It plays to the comedian’s strengths; in addition to his affinity for physical comedy, the film is famous for showcasing his trademark deadpan smart-ass delivery of dialogue and his knack for playing a wide variety of characters – abilities he perfected on Saturday Night Live. Chase expertly juggles Fletch’s numerous aliases. From the likes of the absent-minded, Dr. Rosenrosen to Mr. Underhill’s racquet club “friend” John Cocktosten, Chase makes each one distinctive and hilariously memorable.
Fletch spends the film skewering all sorts of authority figures, from wealthy businessman Stanwyk to the scary chief of police Karlin (Joe Don Baker). He always has a snappy comeback for any given situation. For example, there is a scene early on where Fletch has a funny exchange with Frank (Richard Libertini), his long-suffering editor at the newspaper, about the identity of the reporter’s source to the drug trade going on at the beach. Frank asks Fletch for more information to which he replies, “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” Frank asks, “Alright, how gray?” Without missing a beat, Fletch replies, “Charcoal?” Infuriated, Frank’s hand trembles with anger as he holds a pot of coffee to which Fletch responds by holding an empty styrofoam cup and shakes it also. I think that why the film appeals to so many is that in some way we wish that we all could walk through life like Fletch delivering smart-ass one-liners and getting away with everything. Chevy does it in such a casual, nonchalant way that seems so effortless. It was just a perfect marriage of Bergman’s script and Chevy’s knack for improvising and physical comedy.
Capitalizing on the immensely popular action comedy, Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Fletch adheres to the same formula: the maverick protagonist who has a problem with authority, the use of multiple disguises to get in and out of dicey situations for comedic effect, the obligatory car chase, and even the hopelessly dated synth-soundtrack by Harold Faltermeyer who seemed to be everywhere in the ‘80s, scoring major hits like the aforementioned Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun (1986). His distinctive minimalist synth beats are the glue that holds the collection of forgettable ‘80s songs together. Fletch deviates in one significant aspect: Chase’s character never uses a gun (he also repeatedly gets the crap kicked out of him).
Another aspect of Fletch that makes it so unforgettable is the strong supporting cast. The film features character actors like Joe Don Baker as the slimy Chief of Police Karlin (who brings a wonderfully scary intensity to his role), George Wendt as the amicable drug dealer Fat Sam, Tim Matheson as the double-dealing bigamist Alan Stanwyk, M. Emmet Walsh as the probing Dr. Dolan, and a young, pre-Thelma and Louise (1991) Geena Davis as Larry, Fletch’s ever loyal co-worker. I’ve always harbored a cinematic crush on Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (playing Stanwyk’s wife, Gail) thanks to this film. Her first encounter with Fletch at the racquet club, decked out in a cute, white tennis outfit, is a memorable one. She essentially plays straight man to Chase (who doesn’t in this film?) and they have pretty decent chemistry together. One of the joys of the film is how Chase interacts with all these people and how they react to his flippant, off-handed remarks. Watch him in action in the hospital sequence as he confuses and befuddles the staff in order to get the information he wants (even offhandedly ordering a cup of fat and making a sly reference to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) – it is not only what he says to them but, more importantly, how he delivers the dialogue that makes it so funny.
There are the little asides that are a constant source of amusement, like when researching Stanwyk’s past, Fletch comes across information about the man’s parents and their hometown. Chase deadpans, “that’s three names I enjoy. Marvin, Velma and Provo.” There’s also the recurring gag of Fletch running up an expensive tab on the Underhills, an obnoxious member of the racquet club that Gail frequents, and who Fletch overhears berating the waitstaff upon his initial visit. From that point on, whenever he gets a chance, Fletch orders all kinds of exotic foods and drink, sticking it to this arrogant jerk.
Since Fletch, Michael Ritchie continued as a director-for-hire on a number of movies that didn’t make much of an impact, except for Fletch Lives (1989) and the highly enjoyable James Woods con-man comedy, Diggstown (1993). Sadly, Ritchie died on April 16, 2001 from complications of prostate cancer. Andrew Bergman, on the other hand, enjoyed critical and commercial success with The Freshman (1990), which he wrote and directed, and also made two successful, box-office-friendly romantic comedies starring Nicolas Cage – Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and It Could Happen To You (1994). Sadly, Chase’s post-Fletch career has not been as triumphant. He starred in Fletch Lives, which has its moments but let’s be honest, it is a pale imitation of the original. He has done a series of forgettable family-oriented films (Cops and Robbersons anyone?) that feature Chase on auto-pilot. Even the man himself admits, “I made about 28 movies and I think about five of them were good.”
More so than in any other film, Fletch is classic Chevy Chase. While he is in exceptional form in Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation, they do not showcase his unique talents as well as in Fletch. In every scene, Chase does a fantastic job carrying the picture with the right mix of comedy and drama. Fletch has aged surprisingly well over the years. The jokes are still funny and many of Chase’s one-liners are insanely quotable. So much so that it has become a cult film. In an interview for the New York Post, Bergman tried to explain its appeal. “It’s so bizarre, but Fletch strikes a chord. There’s a group of movies like that in the ‘80s, like Caddyshack, too, that captured a certain wise-ass thing.” Chase also looks back on the film with fondness. “It was at the height of my career in film, and it was as close to me as a person as any part I’d played.” Perhaps the most meaningful praise comes from Gregory Mcdonald himself: “I watched it recently, and I think Chevy and Michael Ritchie did a good job with it.” As Fletch would put it, “and a damn fine answer if I do say so my damn self.”