The comedic whodunit “Confess, Fletch” features the best leading-man role that star Jon Hamm has enjoyed since his breakthrough performance as Don Draper in the exceptionally rich Madison Avenue drama “Mad Men.”
In the last seven years, Hamm (who also produced “Confess, Fletch”) has stood out in a few decent supporting roles — “Bad Times at the El Royale,” “Richard Jewell” — and some voice acting performances, particularly Tony Stark in the Marvel animated comedy “M.O.D.O.K.” and a brief cameo as “Don Grouper” in a 2016 episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Hamm gets to show more of his range in “Confess, Fletch,” a breezy murder mystery based on the second of Gregory McDonald’s “Fletch” novels, the first of which was adapted into a cultishly revered 1985 Chevy Chase vehicle.
With “Confess, Fletch”, director Greg Mottola (“Adventureland”, “Superbad”) and co-writer Zev Borow highlight Hamm’s comedic timing and knack for deadpan understatement. Hamm’s version of Fletch zips along with an unearned grace and unflappable dickishness that not only suits the character but also makes great use of Hamm’s versatility.
As Fletch, a celebrated and now retired investigative reporter, Hamm leads a fast-paced ensemble comedy whose episodic plot also showcases various character-actor performances from supporting cast members, including Marcia Gay Harden, Kyle MacLachlan and Roy Wood Jr.
Fletch arrives in Boston with the intention of solving a mystery on behalf of wealthy love-benefactress Angela De Grassi (Lorenza Izzo): Who stole a batch of priceless paintings from Angela’s father, the mysterious Count De Grassi? A more pressing investigation soon demands Fletch’s attention: Who murdered Laurel Goodwin (Caitlin Zerra Rose), and why is Laurel’s body in Fletch’s luxe Beantown sublet?
Some damning circumstantial evidence — including Fletch’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, a bottle of expensive red wine — suggests that Fletch did it. But Hamm’s antihero knows better. He breezes past murder suspects, security guards and the cops, the latter of whom are represented by the tetchy Inspector Monroe (Wood, Jr., “The Daily Show”) and his eager-to-please partner Griz (Ayden Mayeri, “I Love That for You”).
Fletch obviously needs to clear his name, but he often appears more interested in confirming his self-image as the biggest brain in any given room. Unfortunately for Fletch, he tends to wander into the orbit of wealthy and/or powerful people whose personality quirks stem from their unchecked privilege, like EDM-loving, germ-phobe art dealer Ronald Horan (MacLachlan) and Angela’s oblivious boozy stepmother, Countess De Grassi (Harden).
Because Hamm plays the straight man for various self-absorbed cast members, his take on McDonald’s amateur sleuth occasionally brings to mind Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin in both the “Police Squad” TV series and the “Naked Gun” spinoff movies. Like Nielsen, Hamm gestures expressively with his eyes but remains comically unfazed by whatever disaster he either inserts himself into or causes outright. Zippy pacing and consistently well-written screwball jokes certainly help to keep scenes moving from one plot development to the next, but Hamm’s easy banter with his co-stars really puts “Confess, Fletch” over the top.
Some supporting characters and performances earn bigger laughs than others, especially when Fletch trades class-conscious quips with the extremely white yacht club Commodore (Kenneth Kimmins) as well as a hapless pair of graffiti artists (Travis Bennett and Nhumi Threadgill). These scenes feel like a pale imitation of the eat-the-rich comedy of manners in Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery pastiche “Knives Out.”
Thankfully, even the weakest one-liners in these scenes — when Bennett, a POC, agrees to work with Fletch: “I don’t know what all that white-man nonsense was, but you got a deal.” — prove that the makers of “Confess, Fletch” know exactly what to do with their title character, a pushy white guy who loves to step on other people’s toes and unfailingly assumes he’s the main protagonist of his story. That sort of bratty, savant-like attitude perfectly suited Chase’s wiseass persona, but Mottola and Borow’s version of Fletch makes even better use of Hamm’s tossed-off callousness and lightly-worn star power.
Hamm’s also a generous costar, and “Confess, Fletch” features a lot of tit-for-tat exchanges and snappy comebacks that drag conversations well out of the title character’s limited comfort zone. So while Harden, Mayeri and many other side characters tend to be the butts of Fletch’s sarcastic one-liners and zingers, the jokes are never exclusively on them. An average scene in “Confess, Fletch” features several different kinds of humor, including callbacks, running jokes, physical comedy, and character-driven wordplay, all of which either flatter the individual actors or show off how well they work with their costars.
Hamm’s playful energy makes a big difference here, and it’s thrilling to see him respond to and develop verbal repartee and physical chemistry with the rest of the cast. In “Confess, Fletch,” Mottola confirms his credentials as an actor’s director once again; his sharp presentation of McDonald’s character also seems like a fitting tribute to Hamm, who previously starred in Mottola’s ill-fated “Keeping Up With the Joneses.”
With Hamm setting the pace, Mottola and his collaborators have delivered a performance-centric and character-driven comedy that sets a fine example for how this sort of studio-produced star vehicle can and maybe should be done.
“Confess, Fletch” opens in theaters and on demand September 16.