June 03, 1985 12:00 PM

Throughout his erratic movie career Chevy Chase has honored at least one principle in his comedy: He has never relied on costume changes for laughs. That is, until Fletch. As investigative reporter I.M. Fletcher, the hero of a popular mystery novel series by Gregory McDonald, Chase is tracking down a California drug scam. In the process he impersonates, among others, a quack doctor, a bumbling mechanic, a beach bum and a toastmaster at a dinner for the American Legion. But it’s the sight of Chase as a Los Angeles Laker in an Afro wig that is the real tip-off to the movie’s troubles. The Laker getup is entirely gratuitous—it’s a dream sequence that appears to exist solely to let Chase look ridiculous. Fletch is a showcase for Chase that backfires: You wonder why the actor suddenly needs doodads around him to make himself funny. Although it possesses the smart-mouth sensibility of a hipster comedy, Fletch is really a comic strip with a Dynasty twist. The only hook is, what outlandish outfit will the hero wear next? Like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, Chase plays a chameleon con man in pursuit of justice. But Murphy required only a swish of the wrist or an indignant expression to assume his disguises. Ironically, while Chase’s manic, prop-cluttered performance evokes the worst of Jerry Lewis, the character is better suited to Chase’s persona than any of his other movie roles. A pathological jokester, Fletch courts trouble with his cutting up. When burly cops manhandle him, he taunts, “Why don’t you two go down to the gym and pump each other?” Like Chase in his best Saturday Night Live skits, this guy mocks the conventional so that he can be what he most wants to be—an outsider. But the lazy screenplay by Andrew (Oh God! You Devil) Bergman doesn’t even bother with the fundamentals of character or motivation. Surprisingly, director Michael Ritchie doesn’t bolster the script’s string of vignettes with any of the quirky background action that once distinguished his work. In his best movies, such as Smile and Downhill Racer, Ritchie showed himself to be an astute student of behavior. Here he performs more like a traffic cop at a costume fitting. (PG)

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