Confess, Fletch Review: Maybe It Should Have Stayed In Development Hell

There used to be a time when comedians were some of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. You could put a name on a poster like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, or Adam Sandler, and make some decent cash (if not a boatload) just because of that name, regardless of what the premise of the movie was. These performers had clearly defined comedic personas, and audiences wanted to see them let loose on a big screen. In the 1980s, one of these major figures was Chevy Chase, who had emerged from the first season of "Saturday Night Live" with America hooked on his ability to make an elitist wise-ass somehow charming, and there was no better vehicle for him to capitalize on this than his 1985 comedic mystery picture "Fletch," adapted from the novel by Gregory Mcdonald.

For the last 30 years, Hollywood has been trying to bring the titular investigative reporter back to the silver screen, whether it was Kevin Smith wanting Jason Lee and/or Ben Affleck in the role or Bill Lawrence looking to his "Scrubs" star Zach Braff. Every couple of years, a new "Fletch" would get announced, and every time, it would fall apart. For decades, it seemed destined to remain in development hell for all eternity. That is ... until now. Thirty-three years after Chase's disastrous sequel "Fletch Lives," we have a new Irwin M. Fletcher adventure, and his return does not nearly justify the wait.

"Confess, Fletch," based on Mcdonald's second novel in the series, entirely misjudges the comedic appeal of its predecessor, transforming a setup of one sardonic man at the center of a hardboiled mystery into a barrage of eccentricities and bits that just sit dead on the screen. Greg Mottola's film is in search of its own comedic identity, and it hopes that if it throws enough outrageous characters at the wall that one will be able to define it. Instead, "Confess, Fletch" chooses to do nothing and lets it all fall on the shoulders of the new Fletch: Jon Hamm, someone we assume should be a movie star but most decidedly is not (with this doing very little to help his case). It makes you think development hell was the right place for it.

An uneganging mystery

The poster for "Confess, Fletch" promises a grand Italian murder mystery, depicting a dead woman lying in front of the Roman Coliseum. While there is a dead woman, she actually is found lying in the basement of a townhouse in Boston upon the arrival of Jon Hamm's Fletch, who is currently renting the place. Naturally, Inspector Munroe (Roy Wood Jr.) and his trainee Griz (Ayden Mayeri) have Fletch as the prime suspect. While he is obviously not the culprit, this murder undoubtedly ties into the reason why Fletch is Boston. He was just in Italy, where he fell in love with Angela De Grassi (Lorenza Izzo), and her father has been kidnapped after his lavish collection of paintings had been stolen. Fletch has traced the stolen paintings to an art professor (Kyle MacLachlan) to try and get them back. So, he must try to solve this murder case while evading the watchful eye of the police.

As with any fun murder mystery, what you hope for is a colorful cast of characters who all have a plausible motive for killing someone. You want to get to the end and be surprised by the reveal, where you think to yourself, "How did I not see that coming?" Part and parcel with this is the central investigator accumulating clues through their own idiosyncratic methods that allow them to reach the conclusion in an unexpected way. "Confess, Fletch" attempts to have this collection of people: the mysterious owner of the house (John Behlmann), the chatty neighbor in love with the owner (Annie Mumolo), his vapid style influencer ex-wife (Lucy Punch), and MacLachlan's germophobic, EDM-loving professor.

While each one is certainly eccentric, they forgot to include the part about plausible motives. Who the killer is could not be more obvious from the jump. Otherwise, the murder and the art theft storylines would be completely separate from one another. Instead of getting genuine information out of these people, they are scenes that exist for Fletch to walk into and let the person he is questioning do some wacky stuff. If the suspects aren't interesting and the investigation isn't interesting, what are you making a murder mystery for exactly?

What is Jon Hamm's comedic persona?

I think Jon Hamm is a great actor. For my money, "Mad Men" is the greatest television drama of all time, and his performance as Don Draper displays a vast dynamic range of emotions he can tap into. Hamm also has the capacity to be very funny, as "Bridesmaids," "30 Rock," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" have shown us. What makes him such a wonderful comedic performer in those projects is his willingness to be a guileless buffoon. He has honed his ability to play someone utterly foolish for over a decade to great effect to both separate his acting chops from the tortured Don Draper and offset just how handsome he is. This is a man who has been photoshopped more times into a Superman suit than you can count, and to not be pigeonholed that way, he plays a goofball.

Fletch is not a goofball. Yes, Chevy Chase had a way with pratfalls and fumbling with props, but his demeanor was not of some naïve imp. Fletch is someone able to bluster through life with supreme confidence due to his ability to talk and charm his way into getting out of any situation and gathering any information he wants. Chase could flourish in a role like this because it left so much space for his motormouth to ad-lib his way through any scene. Jon Hamm has been tasked to do the same thing in "Confess, Fletch," but that does very little to highlight his comedic strengths. When Hamm is in comedy mode, he has very little edge to him, and you need that if you are going to make sarcastic quips and come off as charmingly arrogant to the police officers on his tale. He is too earnest of a performer to truly sell the gags that might read better on paper. The people he is surrounded by make it difficult for any humor of his that works to shine through as well.

An improperly cartoonish supporting cast

Something you find in the best detective or investigator comedies, whether it be "Beverly Hills Cop" or "The Nice Guys," is that outside of the central comedic star performance, the rest of the picture essentially goes along as it would if the film starred a serious, badass hero. The original "Fletch" operates the exact same way. Joe Don Baker as the corrupt police chief is genuinely menacing and unhinged. The scene where he takes Fletch down to a jail cell and threatens to shoot him dead right there while planting evidence on him gets under your skin, and Chase not being able to talk his way out of this one gives the film a real weight.

The supporting cast of "Confess, Fletch" all fit their roles well, but they do irreparable damage to creating any proper stakes. Annie Mumolo is perfect as a gossipy, mile-a-minute talker who sets stuff on fire and cuts her finger open while making dinner, but it's not serving the story. It's schtick, and while I chuckled at a bit of it, I couldn't escape how hollow those laughs were. The tonal dissonance between her and Hamm's Fletch is stark, and because she is doing so much, it seems like he isn't doing anything at all.

Another major culprit of this is Marcia Gay Harden, playing the Italian stepmother of Fletch's girlfriend. She desperately wants to sleep with him but always feigns like he is the one coming onto her. First off, can we please stop with the trope of it being insane for an older woman to have sexual urges? Marcia Gary Harden is only 12 years older than Jon Hamm. He is 18 years older than his actual love interest in the movie. Aside from that, it should theoretically be fun to see one of our great character actors put on a ridiculous Italian accent and snobbishly put people down, but Harden feels like she is in a completely different movie. Every supporting character feels like they are in a completely different movie. They might be fun movies on their own, but you can't squish them together like this.

The one time Jon Hamm gets to have a snapping rapport with someone is an all too brief scene with John Slattery, playing Fletch's former newspaper editor. The two developed an electric back-and-forth on "Mad Men," and they basically just transplant that over to this. Slattery plays a bit of a heightened character, but the ornery, wise-ass newspaper editor is a trope that allows for it. As the scene goes on, it does make you wonder ... should John Slattery have played Fletch?

Let's try again in 30 years

"Confess, Fletch" is not a calamity. It's not even the worst movie Jon Hamm and Greg Mottola have made together, an honor that goes to the truly forgotten 2016 spy comedy "Keeping Up with the Joneses." This film wreaks of Hollywood executives getting tired of the constant starting and stopping with a property they own and saying, "Okay. The next pitch that comes in for 'Fletch' will get the green light," and this is the one we got.

What I hope "Confess, Fletch" does is send Greg Mottola back on the path of making smaller, more personal movies like "The Daytrippers" and "Adventureland" where his talent and vision shine through extremely well, and I hope Jon Hamm takes a step back to reconsider what makes him the compelling screen presence he is. We have seen him be very effective recently in pictures like "Baby Driver," "No Sudden Move," and "Top Gun: Maverick," and finding leading roles more in line with that kind of work could suit him far better than this, and if he wants to keep working with Mottola, I could easily see him in a role akin to Ryan Reynolds in "Adventureland."

As for this picture, none of the pieces come together the way they should. The mystery isn't satisfying, and the comedy is out of place. For a comedic mystery, that isn't a very high hit rate. I don't know if any of the other proposed "Fletch" reboots would have worked. I imagine some would be better and some worse. Let's revisit the topic in another 30 years and see what another reboot gives us. Meanwhile, we can file away "Confess, Fletch" alongside other attempted revamps of popular 1980s movie franchises that went nowhere, like 2011's "Arthur" and 2014's "RoboCop".

/Film rating: 3 out of 10