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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Fletch Lives' Takes Bad Jokes, Bad Taste to Deep South

March 17, 1989|CHRIS WILLMAN

"Fletch Lives" (citywide) is the ultimate comedy of condescension, a movie with a hero whose every other line of dialogue is a snide wisecrack directed at a fool. In this meager sequel, as in its popular predecessor, Chevy Chase demolishes every easy target in sight with a quip of the tongue. Some of the lines are funny, but after a while you just want to smack him.

The original "Fletch" film nearly four years ago had Chase, as investigative reporter Irwin Fletcher, sardonically reducing everyone and everything in Los Angeles to its proper level. Having exhausted all possible prey for his comic patronization in this town, what better place to go next and be painfully superior about than the Deep South? Uh-oh.

Welcome to Louisiana, land of obese lawmen, sex-hungry belles, KKK goons, crooked TV evangelists, redneck motorcycle gangs, 'possum hunters, plain folks who like to dress up in Confederate regalia and enough suckers to keep P.T. Barnum in business for five lifetimes. Everyone there has two first names--Jim Bob, Joe Jack, Cindy Mae and almost every other possible combination except John Paul.

These dusty cliches are set up like big plastic ducks in a shooting gallery by screenwriter Leon Capetanos, to be knocked flat by cosmopolitan Chevy, who isn't playing a character (least of all the character first created by novelist Gregory McDonald) so much as reprising his nonplussed, punchline-spouting "Weekend Update" anchor role.

This jester ends up in Louisiana after inheriting a mansion from his recently deceased aunt. It's a given that our hero will offer more rejoinders than remorse about the aunt. It's a little more shocking when, 20 minutes into the movie, its most appealing character (a sexy Southern lawyer played by Patricia Kalember) is killed off as she lies in bed next to Fletch, and all he can do when the police show up is crack jokes.

But sleep with him another woman does, knockout real estate agent Becky Ann Culpepper (Julianne Phillips, she of the angel face and wildly wavering accent), whose land-grubbing TV-preacher father just happens to be a prime suspect in the murder.

It's a brilliant stroke of casting to have R. Lee Ermey--the formidable drill sergeant of "Full Metal Jacket"--take on the role of evangelist Jimmy Lee Farnsworth. And when the picture finally gets to this fake faith-healer's massive church, it looks all set to take off into satirical set-piece heaven. The atrocious baby-blue color scheme of the set design and suits (from costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone and five art directors) is hysterical and--for any students of the TBN or PTL cable networks--dead on-target.

There's more reason to be hopeful still: Director Michael Ritchie is the man who took on such American institutions as politics ("The Candidate"), juvenile sports ("Bad News Bears"), beauty pageants ("Smile") and est seminars ("Semi-Tough") in the '70s. Why not institutionalized religion now?

But this is the Michael Ritchie of the '80s, a coaster more apt to cook up gilded turkeys like "The Golden Child" and last year's career low, "The Couch Trip." This Ritchie lets sophomoric scatology predominate over satire at every turn, and even in the two church scenes--including an amusing bit with Fletch impersonating a guest healer--the gags are more crass than corrosive. The whole dumb mess bottoms out (so to speak) when a parishioner pulls down his pants to show the congregation his hemorrhoids.

Comedy this smug is bound to find its TV-weaned audience, but moviegoers might think twice about signing on as the film makers' partners in put-down when they're clearly also its targets. It's a also a bad sign of the faith Ritchie and editor Richard A. Harris have in their audiences when every time Chase does something funny with his hands, they cut to a closeup of the hands--as if they're afraid we might miss the gag.

Beware: "Fletch Lives" (MPAA-rated PG, in spite of its raunchy-mindedness) may assume that all Southerners are dim bulbs, but it doesn't think you're so bright yourself.

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