Fletch: The Long, Crooked Road to the Latest Reboot

Jason Sudeikis will take over for Chevy Chase in a Fletch reboot. But it's never as simple as it sounds with the Fletch franchise...

After eleven novels, two films, and an innumerable amount of rumors, people still want more Fletch. What does it say about a character so beloved that he has that kind of durability? What does it say about a franchise so feared that it can shake off some of the biggest names in the industry? Hopefully, Jason Sudeikis is game to find out. Yesterday, we all discovered that Jason Sudeikis has been cast as the new Fletch. Even if this Fletch reboot finally makes it to the screen (and it isn’t the first time Hollywood has tried), he’s still going to have to tussle with Chevy Chase’s long shadow.

Of all the iconic roles that defined the career of Chevy Chase – Clark W. Griswold, Ty Webb, asshole – Irwin M. Fletcher may reign supreme. Not because Fletch is his best work, but because it seemed to perfectly collect the best traits from all of his other characters and condense them into one. Goofy, driven, charming, insanely confident, and a massive tool…Chevy Chase is all of those things in the chameleon skin of Irwin Fletcher, a reporter who falls ass backwards into a criminal conspiracy and a great story.

In the sequel, Fletch Lives, Chase is still in command, tossing barbs like grenades at the feet of all who come near as he saunters through the morass of the deep south while investigating a toxic waste dumping operation. Sadly, Fletch Lives fails to keep up with the original, but it isn’t the bankrupt exercise in big screen comedy that some make it out to be. While funny in places, the story is scattered (original Fletch screenwriter Andrew Bergman didn’t come along for the ride) and Fletch is both out of his element and too vested in the outcome from the outset.

A fading sense of detachment and that seamy LA vibe – those are two essential elements that made Fletch superior to its successor and two things it shares with another great hat-tip to the noir genre, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. If you’re familiar with both films, you might think I’m insane, but Fletch and The Long Goodbye feel linked in my mind. Absent a gag here and a character trait there, you almost could swap Chevy Chase with Elliot Gould (and vice versa) without losing a beat in either film. There’s something indescribable that those two comedic actors share that has been sadly lacking in every potential replacement for Chase amid all the rumors and false starts that have plagued the Fletch franchise over the last twenty years. Jason Sudeikis might just have that same indescribable something. Maybe it’s those sad eyes or his cool yet easy on-screen demeanor, but I believe Sudeikis can pull off the more serious moments that Gregory McDonald’s Fletch novels demand and which may be required in this “gritty” reboot.

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People get distracted by the Laker dream sequence and the persistent abuse of the Underhills’ credit account. They forget that Chase wasn’t all smiles and sarcasm in Fletch, which pulled away from the source material quite a bit. Look at Fletch’s curt exchange with Tim Matheson’s Alan Stanwyk when they first meet (“Don’t talk to me like that assface, I don’t work for you yet”) or his tense jail cell stand-off with Joe Don Baker’s crooked police chief. Chase is unheralded for dramatic moments like these in this film. It’s a shame because he shows more range in Fletch than he did anywhere else…with the exception of the rare occurrences on Community when he wasn’t being used like a racist or infirm cartoon. People always assume that the sad tragedy of Chevy Chase’s career is that his winning streak came to a brisk end in the late 1980s, but I’d propose that it might actually be that Chevy Chase never really got the chance to stretch as an actor beyond his stock persona. Maybe the two are linked.

Like Chase (who started off with pratfalls and then honed his trademark dry delivery at the Weekend Update desk before moving on to film) Sudeikis first made a splash on Saturday Night Live, where he stood out with political impressions of Joe Biden and Mitt Romney, and oversized characters like DJ Supersoaker and Marshall T. Boudreaux. But his desk-pieces as The Devil and his more grounded one-off characters were probably his best work on the show. On film, Sudeikis has hit another level since evolving past best friend roles and tired premises like the ones on display in Hall Pass and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy.

Sudeikis did a lot of heavy lifting in Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers, particularly in the latter where he played a reluctant drug smuggler trekking from Mexico to Colorado with his culled together “family” to evade detection. The film plays like the darkest timeline version of National Lampoon’s Vacation, but Sudeikis keeps his edge, occasionally rattling off talon sharp blink-and-you’ll-miss-them one liners throughout. Choosing Sudeikis would seem to indicate that this version of Irwin Fletcher will, like his cinematic predecessor, still use his lacerative wit to disarm and disorient. After all, that trait is one of Sudeikis’ best tools as a performer.

Finding the right man (or woman) to take over for Chevy Chase has only been half the problem, though, as the Fletch franchise has bounced between three studios  (Universal, Miramax, and Warner Bros.) over the last two decades. As is often the case with Hollywood’s hoarding overseers, their logic dictates that doing nothing feels safer than doing something bad or even middling, lest they damn the future prospects of these films and reset the clock. In that respect, the new Fletch has been in the same boat as the Wonder Woman movie for years. However, even the original film had its own hills to climb before finally getting a green light.

Thanks to Lee Goldberg’s interview with Fletch creator Gregory McDonald, we know that the film rights to McDonald’s character once belonged to comedian Alan King and Columbia Pictures, and that at one point, Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s names had been thrown around for the lead role. Thankfully, Universal eventually got the rights and developed it for Chase. The rest is history: released in 1985, Fletch made about $50 million dollars (a solid hit) and in 1989, Fletch Lives made only $35 million. At this point, the franchise had effectively died, and to read Kevin Smith’s account of events, Universal didn’t even know that it still had the rights to the Fletch property when he asked about directing an update.

Smith would make two attempts at reviving Fletch. Once with Chase returning beside Joey Lauren Adams (as Fletch’s and Goldie Hawn’s daughter) with Jason Lee as her boyfriend for Son of Fletch, and once with Lee taking on the role of I. M. Fletcher in an adaptation of Fletch Won (the working title for this latest project). As time marched on, though, Smith fell away from the project after unsuccessfully campaigning to cast Jason Lee as Fletch, almost making the movie with Ben Affleck in the role, and clashing with producer David List, Gregory McDonald’s book agent.

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In the years since Smith moved on from Fletch it seems like a new candidate has leaked out every year or so. The internet being what it is, some were more likely or credible than others. Here’s a list (by way of Entertainment Weekly‘s voluminous article on the history of the franchise and Splitsider) of just some of the talents that were, at one point, mentioned in some respect: Ellen Degeneres, Dave Chappelle, John Krasinski, Ryan Reynolds, Jimmy Fallon, Justin Long, and Chris Tucker (with Brett Ratner directing). Even Chevy Chase made a reappearance on the carousel of rumors back in 2009, although obviously that didn’t come to pass.

Aside from Smith, the most persistent names attached to the creative side of the Fletch reboot in recent years have been Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, Hot Tub Time Machine director and High Fidelity writer Steve Pink, and Curb Your Enthusiasm producer David Mandel. With the exception of Mandel, these men have each brought their own star selections to the rumor mill, either legitimately (Zach Braff and Joshua Jackson) or based solely on the fact that they were once in the same room as them (John Cusack, Pink’s frequent collaborator).

Eventually, though, everything came apart. That is until this week, when it was reported that Jason Sudeikis would play Fletch in Fletch Won, off a script by David List. Yes, the same David List who has been in the middle of this fight from the beginning.

What’s the point of this history lesson? Unfortunately, it’s to demonstrate that this franchise has a way of breaking hearts. So while Sudeikis feels like a perfect choice for the role of Irwin M. Fletcher, clearly possessing the “smartest guy in the room” quality that Kevin Smith once sought, we might all be well served to hold our applause until someone yells action.

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