Starting in the 1970s, Gregory McDonald wrote nine novels starring I.M. “Fletch” Fletcher, a sort of insouciant, bon vivant LA Times reporter who gets into mischief, like a sort of class clown’s James Bond. Most famously, Fletch was portrayed on film by Chevy Chase in Fletch (1985) and Fletch Lives (1989) near the prime of his post-SNL career. After being mired in development hell for years, Paramount is finally releasing its Fletch sequel, Confess, Fletch, directed by Superbad‘s Greg Mottola and starring Jon Hamm, to be released simultaneously in theaters and on demand September 16th.
Jon Hamm doing his best Chevy Chase impression in a Fletch movie is a curious proposition. Here we have Chase, an undeniable comedic talent who was kind of an asshole by most accounts (read Live From New York, or pretty much any account of Chase from anyone he has worked with), being imitated by Jon Hamm, an actor known for and probably best at, playing mostly gruff sociopaths. Hamm has nevertheless spent most of the past decade on a crusade to become accepted as a comedic actor, which continues with Hamm playing Fletch, a character firmly grounded in the era when being breezy to the point of possible insanity was considered the height of comedy (as perfected by many of the early SNL guys, like Chase and Bill Murray — who famously got into a fist fight during which Murray called Chase a “medium talent.“).
On the one hand, you can understand why Hamm and/or the people behind Confess, Fletch might think this was a good fit. Hamm and Chase are both tall, athletic-looking men, who have made a living largely playing off their classically WASP-handsome looks (Hamm playing über WASP impostor Don Draper in Mad Men; Chase literally taking his stage name from a WASP enclave in Maryland despite being named “Cornelius Crane Chase.”). Fletch is, above all, a guy who lives a charmed life. At face value, both Chase and Hamm fit that bill.
Yet despite those similarities, almost from the first frames of Confess, Fletch, Hamm doesn’t feel quite right for this. Where Chase is wild-eyed and rubber-faced, Hamm looks like a block of granite, intense-eyed and piercing. Whereas Chase treated his “master of the universe” status as some kind of cosmic joke that he was chill enough to go along with, Hamm seems more suspicious of it. Chase’s louche WASP act felt like he was trolling the establishment. Hamm’s feels chiding, like he’s disappointed in them. He has a bit of a resting disappointed face. At a basic level, Chase is a clown, where Hamm is stolid. Everything Chevy Chase said sounded like a joke. Nothing Jon Hamm says sounds like a joke. Chase is a ham. Hamm, ironically, is not.
Hearing what he was like to work with, it’s hard not to wonder whether Chase’s personal prickliness was part of what made him the perfect comedic leading man of the 80s, cocky enough to ham it up at a moment’s notice and confident that it would work or blasé enough not to care if it didn’t. WASPs in general maybe aren’t as secure in their status as they once were, and Hamm, who landed his breakout role when he was 36, exudes nothing in his comedic work (some of it very good, like his character arc in 30 Rock) if not a sense of “happy to be here.” Maybe Chase’s outsider attempt to understand interpersonal charm is what makes him so good at faking it, and Hamm’s outsider attempt to understand ruthlessness is what makes him so good at that. They make excellent foils.
This is largely subtext in Confess, Fletch, which at the very least is a breezy watch, for a while. Mottola still shows a clear flair for the humanistic, good-natured comedy of Superbad and Adventureland, and most of the joke writing in Confess, Fletch is sharp, to the point of being exceptionally so. It’s just that Chase had a way of milking a five-out-of-10-level joke that made it into something memorable, whereas Hamm will toss off an eight-out-of-10 joke in such a breezy, backhanded way that you almost want to rewind so that you have a chance to laugh at it. It’s hard to know if Hamm isn’t clowning hard enough or if he just doesn’t have the face for it. When Roy Wood Jr. shows up as a police detective, and even Hamm’s old Mad Men chum John Slattery, you think ah, there. Now that’s what it looks like when Confess, Fletch‘s jokes really land.
The plot concerns Fletch’s new Italian girlfriend, Angie (Lorenza Izzo, who looks like Ana De Armas’ long-lost sister), and a kidnapping plot that has ensnared her father, a countess played by Marcia Gay Harden, and a local gallery owner played by Kyle MacLachlan. There’s also the matter of a murdered woman, found dead in Fletch’s borrowed Boston apartment, with all the evidence pointing to him as the murderer. He’s forced to play a cat-and-mouse game with the two detectives on his tail (played by the aforementioned Roy Wood Jr. with Ayden Mayeri as his partner, both great) in order to hopefully catch the real culprit before their plan to frame Fletch lands him in prison.
But honestly, who really cares all that much for plot in a Fletch movie? This is probably where Hamm’s sort-of understated acting, as opposed to Chase’s over-the-top clowning, wrongfoots the movie he’s leading. Playing the jokes relatively straight gives you the sense that they’re a bridge to something else; but in Fletch the “something else” is a mirage, a transparent conceit. The jokes are supposed to be the thing. It’s the plot that’s just a means for them, not the other way around.
White dude protagonists facing consequences is having a bit of a moment right now (not always for better, sometimes we lose the vicarious thrill of “getting away with it” in the process), and Hamm’s conception of Fletch sometimes makes it feel like Confess, Fletch is leading us that way. But then when it doesn’t, the ending feels not only unearned, but sort of unfair to its minor characters (like the dead girl, for instance), who could’ve been more easily glossed over and breezed by in a more overtly clowny performance and movie. Confess, Fletch ends up feeling a little like Don Draper trying to do Ace Ventura, offering as much pathos as it does laughs, almost in spite of itself.