One of the biggest mysteries that investigative journalist Irwin Maurice Fletcher has ever faced (“Fletch” to his friends) is why there haven’t been more movies featuring the character. Gregory McDonald’s popular Fletch novels, of which there are 11, were pretty much all dialogue. The author’s lighthearted response—which owed more to Hollywood’s screwball comedy tradition than film noir—should have lent itself well to screenplays, but only two were made: Back in the ’80s, we had a bunch that Chevy positioned Chase as a goofy sleuth with a penchant for disguise, and others (including Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, and Chris Tucker) have since tried to revive him.
Finally reborn with Jon Hamm in the role and Greg Mottola (“Superbad”) behind the camera, “Confess, Fletch” makes no attempt to channel what Chase did before (elaborate costumes, complete with fake hair and teeth), instead back to go to McDonald’s philosophy that mysteries were just an excuse for a sardonic reporter to excite other people, be they sources, suspects, or professional detectives. The film opens with Fletch discovering a body in his living room (technically it’s not his place, although his presence there immediately makes a person of interest to the police). Taken straight from the book, the call he makes to report it tells us so much about his character.
Fletch had been investigating another crime: a rich man has been kidnapped and a ransom is demanded for his expensive art collection. Since Fletch is reasonably sure he wasn’t the killer, he is blasé against the police assigned to the case — Inspector Morris Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.) and his assistant Griz (Ayden Mayeri) — who take his shoes off when they’re called into their office (“What, hands can parade around naked all day, but god forbid you show a pair of toes?”) and treat these two officers of peace as if they were on his payroll.
While they keep an eye on Fletch, he goes snooping around on his own, interviewing a series of lunatics whose bond with the deceased is less memorable than what the actors they play bring to the table. The standout of these is Annie Mumolo as the neighbor who distractedly prepares dinner while Fletch interviews her, slicing her hand open and nearly setting the kitchen on fire in the process. There’s also Kyle MacLachlan as a clean freak, Marcia Gay Harden as a hot and tricky Italian Countess (she pronounces his name “Flesh”) and Lucy Punch as a trophy wife who is only too happy to show off her “customized ” home furnishings (“it teaches us something about ourselves”).
Rather than make a big show by going undercover, as Chase’s “National Lampoon” crafty sketch-comedy skills fit, Hamm plays on the ignorance and gullibility of other characters. When he breaks into a country club, he grabs another guy’s blazer and lets others take what they want from him. He’s slippery with the police and shrewd with connections (“Mad Men” co-star John Slattery appears as Fletch’s newspaper editor), but not too concerned about covering his tracks elsewhere.
The way Hamm and Mottola envisioned it, Fletch’s technique feels no more sophisticated than a man trying to fool his dog by pretending to throw the ball and then hiding it behind his back. Frankly, it’s no less amusing to see them fall for it than a carefully planned and executed investigation could be. Women can’t resist his charm (that part comes easy to Hamm), while others please him, but ultimately Fletch’s lack of professionalism becomes his mark, like the pothead PIs in “The Big Lebowski” and “Inherent Vice.” .” In the not-so-great finale, all the suspects are gathered and Fletch unravels his theory, which is quickly undone once another character pulls a gun on him. But at least now he knows who the killer is. There’s more than one way to get a job done – whether it’s solving a murder, restoring precious art, or repainting an old van – and Fletch’s strategy is guaranteed to be more original than what the next guy would try too.