I’m about a month behind on this, but conservative blogger Reihan Salam recently attached a peculiar political thesis to the recently-reissued Chevy Chase film Fletch in an essay for Slate. Though many of the points Salam makes are accurate - Chase’s character is a jerk whose smugness makes us wonder why we should be laughing along with him—the argument seems a bit like a pat culture-war brief. The essay reads like a calculated provocation, a bias (that liberals are always hipster creeps, “reverse snobs”) looking for an occasion. Salam basically attempts to make a juvenile film serve as proof that liberal attitudes (they don’t quite reach the level of political philosophy in his mind, it seems—they are only postures, poses one makes to try to impress others) are also inherently juvenile, petty attempts of the privileged to poke fun at earnest hard workers while sympathizing with “countercultural” deadbeats. Salam suggests that the liberals who enjoy Fletch get off vicariously on how the character can go through his world exuding contempt for salt-of-the-earth types who can’t manage or don’t bother to be ironic.
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.
To Salam, Fletch is mainly a glib supercilious phony that only other glib phonies could enjoy. “What better way to highlight Fletch’s abandonment of the hypocrisy of middle-class convention than to have him treat everybody like crap?” Salam explains.
But I’m not convinced that we’re not supposed to laugh at Fletch and his boorishness, not empathize with it as though it constituted some welcome rebellious statement. It should be remembered that Fletch follows almost point for point the formula established by Eddie Murphy’s breakout film, Beverly Hills Cop, right down to the doodly incidental music by Harold Faltermeyer, the synthesizer maestro behind “Axel F.” The main difference in the films is that Murphy, a black cop from the tough-as-nails streets of Detroit running amok in the luxe world of Beverly Hills, is a slightly different sort of outsider than Fletch, a newspaper reporter undercover in the drug milieu. To make it conform more to the BHC formula, Fletch was made to seem also like an irreverent outsider who won’t abide by the establishment’s rules. The audience of BHC may sympathize with Murphy’s laughter at upper-class mores and kid-gloves police procedure, but he remains fundamentally other to most of the audience because of his race if nothing else. And audiences would rather imagine themselves as the Beverly Hills resident than the outsider black cop—in fact audiences get to do both because they can luxuriate in the Beverly Hills settings while conveying with laughter that they get the outsider perspective. They experience the luxury without the pretension.
Chevy Chase makes for an imperfect analogue for Murphy, but the Fletch character I think is conceived in the same way—we are supposed to appreciate his antics but ultimately feel superior to him; to feel like by laughing at him we get the best of both worlds—mainstream comforts and a hipster sensibility. This potentially noxious combination may be what Salam objects to. According to the essay he prefers comedy animated by right-wing populism—the snobs defeated by the slobs, as in Animal House. Salam then universalizes this motif as the linchpin of all successful screwball comedy, and deems Fletch a failure.
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.
But this seems wrong on several accounts. Salam obviously wants to deride today’s hipsters, some of whom in their kneejerk nostalgia may embrace Fletch as an iconic film—just as they tend to consider anything they can remember from when they were eight years old as iconic. This may be pathetic, but it’s not really an act of snobbery so much as it’s a generation’s attempt to differentiate itself from previous ones. Regardless, Fletch (who is not depicted as hypereducated or in the grips of any special anger toward religious voters or religious mores—he seeks instead to root out institutionalized corruption and I guess that’s why Salam confuses Fletch’s villains with the Republican party) has nothing to do with the urban secularism of the hipster class, and this transparent attempt to elide them should not be allowed to stand.
Also, I object to the characterization of Fletch as a slobs vs. snobs film. It’s not Revenge of the Nerds—like BHC it is comedy-action hybrid that wants to celebrate wisecracking vigilantism, with the humor taking the edge off of the antisocial nature of it. But Chase plays up the antisocial nature of Fletch’s endeavor—the selfishness and self-righteousness—which perhaps makes those who want to revel in the “one just man against rotten institutions” theme uncomfortable. And when he takes advantage of the made-to-order scripted morons in order to propel the plot, what’s expressed is not Fletch’s hipsterish hauteur but the lazy screenwriter’s contempt for perceptive and demanding audiences. What we see is the inclination to write for the lowest common denominator unfolding as action. We feel the awkwardness of being expected to laugh along with the complacent folks who don’t want their comedy to be complicated or layered, people who think sitcoms that trade in stereotypes are funny. In other words, the film is tailored not for cognoscenti but for the sort of people in flyover country that Salam imagines the film offends and attacks.