Confess, Fletch Review: Trying to Do Too Much

Fletch, the 1985 Chevy Chase comedy that has been a staple of '80s "best-of" lists since its release, was based on one of eleven books featuring Irwin Maurice "Fletch" Fletcher. In the first novel, which the Chase film adapted, Fletch is an investigative journalist who gets caught up in two high-stakes stories, which intersect in surprising ways. The mystery of the book took a backseat to the comedy in the movie, which was directed by Michael Ritchie of The Bad News Bears and The Candidate. In Confess, Fletch, out this week from Paramount, the balance shifts -- at least slightly -- more toward the mystery end of the spectrum.

Jon Hamm takes over the role of Fletch in this movie, which is the first sequel since 1989's forgettable Fletch Lives. It adapts author Gregory McDonald's second Fletch novel, which is perfect, because it's the second movie to actually be adapted from one of the books, with Lives being an original story created for the screen. It was Hamm who got Confess, Fletch made, although the idea of a Fletch sequel has been floating around for years, with names like Kevin Smith (Clerks) and Bill Lawrence (Ted Lasso) attached at various points.

Hamm's commitment to the character makes him fun to watch in the role; he deftly adapts the character from the novels, while also putting across a flavor of performance that's evocative of what Chase brought to the '80s films. His charm and humor ticks all the boxes, and for a movie built around his performance, that's an important component. Without Hamm delivering a funny and charming I.M. Fletcher, this movie would be dead in the water.

The drawback to Hamm is his age. The character of Fletch, especially on screen, is often seen as someone suffering from a bit of arrested development, and that's a lot more "cute" if the character is in his late 20s, as he seems to be in the first couple of novels. Chase even pulled it off at 42, but with Hamm being 51 years old, some of Fletch's cutesy mannerisms don't quite land in Confess, Fletch. When Fletch was a 40-year-old who couldn't scrape together money for lunch, you can forgive him acting a little snarky toward a waiter. When he's a wealthy 50-year-old, suddenly his chirping "five stars!" as he exits every Uber seems a lot more condescending.

In fact, the wealth that Fletch seems to have -- the events of the first book are never referenced directly, but it's implied that they happened, which means he has a small fortune that he walked away with at the end -- does some weird things to the character in general. Take Columbo, for instance: he's disheveled, hunched over, and always allows the criminals to think he's clueless -- just a blue-collar guy doing his job. That makes him charming, and it makes it clear that there's a design behind the wealthy and powerful people he is always catching in their crimes. In Confess, Fletch, there's a little bit of that. Certainly some very bad rich people are laid low. Still, many of the butts of jokes are the blue-collar folks, and it makes the movie read a little bit like Fletch is some kind of anti-Columbo, a smiling, snide face of wealth and privilege poking fun at motormouthed security guards and harmless potheads.

That is not the only writing choice that's a little baffling. While Hamm does a great job threading the needle between "book Fletch" and "movie Fletch," not everyone pulls it off. There are scenes that feel like a callback to the screwball humor that showed up in Fletch, juxtaposed against a much more dry, much less silly take on the character and his world. In our interview with director Greg Mottola, he said that a lot of the humor comes from watching Fletch react to the people around him -- but he isn't really a straight man, given that his personality and snark are unavoidable.

Frank Jaffe, Fletch's editor who makes a brief appearance in the film, is played by Mad Men's John Slattery, and his back-and-forth with Hamm is golden. He's one of a few characters who could have used more screen time, in part because when Fletch is poking at him, you don't get the idea that he's punching down. In the books, the targets of Fletch's disdain all deserve it. Here, it feels like he's a firehose of snark, drenching everyone in sight, and as a result, it's fun when he's sharing the screen with characters who can take what he's dishing out.

One thing that was done especially well is updating the movie for the modern day. There aren't many scenes in Confess, Fletch that couldn't have taken place when the book was written -- and when things are updated, it's done in a matter-of-fact way, and it enhances the story. Getting around the idea of computerized records for a van he needs repainted, Fletch recruits a pair of young graffiti artists to do it for him, rather than wearing down the guy at the auto body shop. When he gets a file from Frank, it's password-protected ("Go F yourself" being the password), providing a little chuckle that didn't exist when it was just a folder being handed over discreetly.

The mystery itself works well. It tracks the one in the book very closely, and as a fan of the series, Confess, Fletch has one of the best, most fun mysteries of the whole lot. There are some simplifications made in order to fit the run time, but nothing nearly as significant as what was done to make the 1985 film work. Fans of the books will likely be among the happiest about Confess, Fletch, but those same people will be the most baffled and disappointed at the decision to excise Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn and his partner Grover. 

Flynn got his own book series spinning out of the events of Confess, Fletch, so it seems likely these characters could not be part of the movie due to rights issues. That's understandable, and their big-screen replacements (Roy Wood, Jr. as Inspector Monroe and Ayden Mayeri as Griz) are really likable -- hell, if you want to follow an earlier thread, there's an element of Griz feeling a bit like Columbo at times. Still, one has to wonder why they chose to adapt Confess, Fletch instead of one of the other books, when they knew early in the process that they would not be able to use Flynn.

It isn't so much that Flynn himself is the thing that makes the mystery work. Instead, the removal of Flynn and Grover necessitates the creation of Monroe and Griz, which means creating yet more work for the filmmakers, who are already trying to pare down a very complicated book to fit a very short run time.

And yes, the run time becomes a liability. This story has a lot of characters, including some truly great performances (In addition to Hamm and Slattery, Mayeri is pitch-perfect in every scene she's in; give that character a Paramount+ show, stat!), but many of them don't get the space they need to breathe. The mystery also feels a lot easier to solve in the movie than it did in the book, and that's likely because the compressed nature of the storytelling made subtle clues seem more obvious and important. The whole thing feels very crowded -- and sometimes, that's used to great effect.

In Fletch, Chase's interpretation of the character had a much more simplified version of the mystery. Two parallel mysteries from the book are very closely related in the movie, and as a result, there's not much of a sense of chaos at the end of the movie. When the two different plotlines converge, it feels fairly...normal. That's not how McDonald writes his climaxes at all.

In the book Fletch, there are five or six dangling plot threads, and Fletch essentially schedules all of them to collide with one another, so that in the final pages of the mystery, the stakes are not just high...the whole story feels a little chaotic. You wonder, "How the hell can he wrap this up in the remaining pages?" Confess, Fletch faithfully recreates that McDonald-ian sense of absolute chaos in its third act, bringing together ten or so characters from three or four different subplots for a scene that's just bedlam. Ironically, it feels more like what you think of as the climax to an '80s comedy like Animal House than the actual '80s movie did, and the results are electric. That scene is funnier than almost anything else in the movie, without undercutting the very real stakes that several of the subplots have. It really validates the idea that McDonald's frantic pacing and rat-a-tat dialog could be faithfully adapted into a really great movie, and makes the viewer wish more of the movie had felt like that.

Confess, Fletch is a film that has all of the pieces it needs to be great, but its short run time and a few baffling creative choices make it feel like it is juggling too many plot threads, too many characters, and too much ambition.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Confess, Fletch opens in theaters on Friday. It will be available to purchase that same day on digital video platforms.