As we head into the late '00s, the wave of '80s nostalgia is receding quickly. We've pretty much exhausted British New Wave. Enormous, dazzling-white Nike Air Force 1s have long since reconquered street fashion. And, in a bout of what can only be called collective insanity, a few beautiful young women even dare to don leg warmers. So, before Generation Y's fast-growing purchasing power displaces '80s nostalgia forever with platinum-plated collector's editions of Britney Spears'Oops! ... I Did It Again, the culture industries are gearing up to sell us the decade's detritus. I'm talking about Patrick Swayze, white denim, and Fletch— the last just repackaged in a special "Jane Doe" edition that unapologetically includes some of the worst special features ever stamped onto a DVD.
As a movie, Fletch is all but unwatchably bad. But as a cultural artifact, itis invaluable. Reagan had just been re-elected by a landslide when the film hit theaters in 1985, and Fletch reflects, in a strange and roundabout way, an era of wrenching liberal despair. While the enlightened bourgeoisie and their scruffy spawn were no longer running the country, they could at least laugh along with Chevy Chase as he poked fun at Reagan's America—the nouveau riche, the pig-headed cops, the Mormons.
Two years before Fletch infected movie theaters nationwide, Michael Kinsley boasted in Harper's that he was a reverse-snob: Not only did he self-consciously eschew the shmancy Lacoste alligator—he and his friends sported decidedly down-market discount polo shirts emblazoned with the J.C. Penney fox. * And so it is with the always-informal Fletch, who rocks his L.A. Lakers jersey while posing as an "amiable junkie"—and also while cracking wise with his uptight editor in the newsroom of his very serious paper.
Watching Fletch again, I experienced the shock of recognition: The film perfectly captures the rise of the ironically detached hipster sensibility. Chevy Chase, then at the height of both his career and comedic powers, plays an investigative reporter named Irwin Fletcher. Throughout the movie, he dons a seemingly endless series of "comical" disguises in the haphazard pursuit of a big scoop on the Los Angeles drug trade. And yet he always radiates the same genial contempt. Fletch is handsome, self-confident, and he certainly sounds affable. Listen closely, though, and you'll find that his pleasant demeanor masks the condescending jackass within.
Fletch has no time for squares. He's happy to charge many a Bloody Mary and steak sandwich to some rich asshole while he's infiltrating a posh country club.
But then again, he can't resist muttering some pointless crack about tacos when a Latina housemaid offers him a polite "buenos dias." Talk about a class act.
Any working stiff, rich or poor, gets the same rhetorical punch in the nose from our Fletch—but it's always carefully concealed, the better to avoid getting a well-deserved actual punch in the nose. Even when he's being "charming"—notably when he's wooing the winning WASP Mrs. Stanwyk—he comes across as a childish boor.
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.)