As in any adolescent fantasy, Mrs. Stanwyk coos and giggles at every boneheaded remark. What better way to highlight Fletch's abandonment of the hypocrisy of middle-class convention than to have him treat everybody like crap?
I should say almost everybody. There is one category of person that is near and dear to Fletch: the somehow uniformly lovable druggies and dealers who populate the Santa Monica beach. These are the innocents of Fletch, and our hero is—for a change—kind, respectful, and even protective toward them. That's because (naturally) these drug-addled dropouts are victims of crooked police Chief Jerry Karlin. In a particularly inspired bit of casting, Chief Karlin is portrayed by Joe Don Baker, the same actor who portrayed Sheriff Buford Pusser in the Nixon-era crime-busting parable Walking Tall. In 1973, the take-no-prisoners lawman was the hero. This time, the same man preys on the poor to line his own pockets.
(Of course, Chief Karlin isn't the only bad guy. The man who draws Fletch into the whole tangled web is Alan Stanwyk, a well-coiffed Mormon bigamist who plans to off our hero just to make a quick buck. Thanks to this random anti-Mormon drive-by, you might say Fletch is Angels in America for really dumb people.)
Granted, there is something funny about George Wendt, better known as Norm from Cheers, wearing a beret and speaking fluent jive. And the scene where Fletch imagines he's a 'bow-dropping L.A. Laker with an enormous Afro is mildly amusing. Even so, I dare say I'd find a DVD of my own leg being sawed off more entertaining than the mostly mindless "gags" that have made Fletch a modern comedy classic in the eyes of so many critics, whom I for one will never trust again. Hey, he just told one guy his name is Ted Nugent! And another guy that his name is Don Corleone! Whoa, did he just say his name is John Cocktoastin! Watch as he convinces some elderly rustic that his name is Harry S Truman. *
These are, the aforementioned all-too-brief moments aside, the movie's comedy highlights. What they all have in common is that they employ cultural references accessible enough for a stupid person to easily understand, thus giving him a chance to feel superior. Charming.
So, why is Fletch such a failure? It could be that—like it or not—hipster liberalism just doesn't mesh well with screwball comedy. Animal House, the ur-text,pits the lovable ne'er-do-wells of Delta Tau Chi against the duplicitous and icily priggish Dean Wormer, and we know from the start whom we're rooting for. Or take the more recent smash hit Wedding Crashers, in which a pair of charming scoundrels square off against the privileged scion of a great American family. To the extent there's any political subtext here, you might think it's simple, straightforward egalitarianism: You can't let some two-bit tyrant ruin all your fun, and you can't let some J. Press preppie bastard get the girl.
But there's more than a passing resemblance between this narrative and classic right-wing populism. Like "Bluto" Blutarsky rallying his fraternity to ruin the homecoming parade, crafty conservatives have been riling up middle America for decades against champagne-sipping limousine liberals. The boys in Animal House aren't, say, fighting tooth and nail for a living-wage ordinance. These mostly privileged young men are fighting for their right to party—a libertarian cause if there ever was one. And consider that the villain in Wedding Crashers is a Kennedy clone, a cultured environmentalist who hides his woman-hating ways behind earnest platitudes.
Fletch is so abominably bad because it's trying to be a slobs vs. snobs comedy, but all the while, Fletch is the biggest snob of them all. He claims to stick up for the downtrodden. But like the über-educated hipster kids clamoring to secede from "Jesusland," his disdain is directed against the God-fearing, hard-working rubes of the Heartland. There are two things Fletch badly needs. The first is a slap upside the head. The second is a copy of What's the Matter With Kansas? Sure, Fletch, you might be right about the class war. But can you please wipe that smirk off your face?
Correction May 25, 2007: This article originally misidentified the retailer of fox-emblazoned polo shirts. The logo signifies J.C. Penney, not Sears. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) June 1, 2007: Due to a production error, Harry S Truman's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. (Return to the corrected sentence.)