We get so few good movie comedies these days it sometimes seems like Hollywood has forgotten how to make them. To date, there’s exactly one traditional comedy among the 25 top-grossing movies of the year, the Sandra Bullock rom-com The Lost City. Economics surely play a role in this sad state of cinematic affairs; comedies don’t travel as well internationally as less dialogue-heavy genres, and audiences don’t seem to want to travel to theaters for anything except big-budget spectacles. So movie studios make fewer and fewer comedies, and audiences starved for laughs look for them elsewhere.
I couldn’t even tell you the last time I laughed out loud at a new movie comedy — before I watched Confess, Fletch. That’s the bottom line here: This movie is funny. It didn’t knock me out with ingenious plot twists, bold cinematography, or groundbreaking editing. But it made me smile for 98 minutes. That doesn’t happen too often lately.
Neither do Fletch movies; this is the first new one featuring Gregory Mcdonald’s sleuthing reporter Irwin Fletcher in over 30 years. Fletch was previously embodied by Chevy Chase in 1985’s entertaining Fletch and 1989’s not-entertaining Fletch Lives. This time, he’s portrayed by Jon Hamm, who has finally found a movie role perfectly suited to his onscreen talents. Fletch is a consummate bulls— artist who thinks he can fast-talk his way through any problem. Hamm doesn’t play the guy exactly as Chase did; he dials way back on the slapstick and underplays the character’s love of disguises and fake identities. But Fletch’s acerbic core still comes through loud and clear.
Hamm’s Fletch doesn’t working as an investigative journalist either, at least not anymore — although he still likes to introduce himself as a former newsman “of some repute.” As Confess, Fletch begins, he arrives in Boston on the trail of some stolen paintings he’s been hired to find on behalf of a wealthy Italian Count. Fletch enters the townhouse he’s rented for his trip and immediately stumbles on a dead body. When the cops arrive, he realizes that all the evidence has been arranged to finger him as the prime suspect. He’ll need to solve the case to stay out of jail.
The two interconnected mysteries bring Hamm’s deadpan, seen-it-all Fletch into the orbit of some amusingly eccentric suspects, including a germophobic art dealer (Kyle MacLachlan) and the drunken dog lover who lives next door to Fletch’s rented townhouse (Annie Mumolo). There’s also the Count’s beautiful daughter (Lorenza Izzo) and his gold-digging wife, played by an amusingly glammed up Marcia Gay Harden, who flirts with our hero in a hammy Italian accent. (“Confesssss, Flesh!” she coos.) Hamm even gets to reunite for a few scenes with his former Mad Men co-star John Slattery, who plays Fletch’s former newspaper editor.
Here is where I will admit that I didn’t always follow the exact details of Fletch’s investigation; if forced to summarize the plot, I doubt I could accurately describe the exact series of events. That does not bother me at all. Confess, Fletch’s mystery is complicated but not confusing; it’s always clear enough what’s going on to enjoy Fletch’s company as he quips his way around Boston. And anyway, I’d rather watch a movie where I have to work to keep up with characters who are smarter than me than follow dummies doing obvious, predictable things.
Besides Harden, Hamm’s best scenes are with Roy Wood Jr. as the police detective assigned to investigate the murder in Fletch’s townhouse. Wood’s Inspector Monroe, who has earned the nickname “Slowpoke” from colleagues because of his methodical methods, is utterly unamused by Fletch’s constant wisecracks; their conversations become wonderful exchanges of dryly hilarious dialogue. Poor Monroe, who is also trying to sleep train his son, spends one interrogation scene rocking an infant in a BabyBjorn while Fletch tries to give him advice on Ferberizing the kid. When those two were going at it, I never wanted this movie to end.
Confess, Fletch’s tone is exactly right. All of the actors are perfectly in sync with each other and with the script from Zev Borow and director Greg Mottola, which is jammed with one-liners and back-and-forth banter. The boozy, screwball energy of several sequences, including a climax where all the suspects convene in Fletch’s kitchen, reminded me of The Thin Man. Other scenes reminded me of Robert Altman’s great deconstruction of detective fiction The Long Goodbye; both undercut the usual rules of movie gumshoes with laconic wit. If your new comic mystery draws comparisons to those classics, you’re in pretty good shape.
After his years of complex work on Mad Men and his scene-stealing performances, mostly in supporting roles, in some of the few comedies Hollywood has made in recent years, I’m not sure why it’s taken so long for Hamm to find a vehicle suited to his combination of leading man good looks and sardonic timing. Whatever the reason, Confess, Fletch suits him perfectly. He’s made no secret in interviews that he would like to make more Fletch movies. I, for one, would like to watch them.
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