In the spring-stepped new mystery-comedy Confess, Fletch, Jon Hamm faces what may be his greatest acting challenge ever: playing a man who disdains shoes. Granted, the man who became famous as Don Draper on Mad Men hasn’t always been as well-dressed in movies as he was on that near-perfect show. In Confess, Fletch, as “investigative reporter of some repute” Irwin Maurice Fletcher, he’s still further afield than usual from Hamm’s smooth image. Hamm has played goofy roles in cameos and Saturday Night Live sketches, and he’s parodied his own image as Gabriel in Good Omens. But in movies, he tends to be unsmiling and weary, often a little menacing. In Confess, Fletch, he takes off his shoes and socks at every opportunity and makes a pet issue out of what he sees as society’s pro-footwear propaganda — all as he’s suspected of murder.
The running gag about Fletch’s perpetual barefootedness is one of the few moments where Confess, Fletch saddles its leading actor with material that feels a little too shticky for his comedic instincts to sell. Otherwise, the movie is a belated cinematic star turn for a performer who has tended to pick and choose supporting roles, rather than pursuing George Clooney-style TV-to-movie prestige. Maybe Hamm’s movie career hasn’t actually been as underdressed as it looks. Maybe it’s just been missing the kind of insight writer-director Greg Mottola brings to building a story around what Hamm does best.
Mottola has directed Hamm once before, in the little-seen but funny comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses. There, the star leaned into his man’s-man image, playing a super-spy improbably posing as a suburban neighbor to a genuinely mundane couple played by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher. Joneses has the slapstick action sequences that mark this kind of neighbor comedy. Confess, Fletch moves at a more relaxed tempo that better suits both Hamm and Mottola. After flying into the U.S. from a jaunt (and whirlwind romance) in Rome, Fletch arrives at a Boston townhouse rented on his behalf — and finds a corpse there.
He immediately calls the cops, but this doesn’t absolve him from suspicion. His honest but overly flip responses to interrogation try the patience of otherwise dogged cop Detective Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.). Warned to stay away from the murder case, Fletch still launches an amateur investigation, while also trying to puzzle out the location of some valuable paintings for his new girlfriend, Angela (Lorenza Izzo). Various colorful characters flit in and out of the story, as befitting a comic mystery.
Confess, Fletch is based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Mcdonald, part of a long-running book series. Comedy fans may remember that Chevy Chase played Fletch in the 1980s, in one well-received comedy (Fletch) and one ill-regarded sequel (Fletch Lives). Since then, plenty of actors and directors have considered rebooting the character: Abortive Fletch projects have toyed with casting Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, Zach Braff, and/or Jason Sudeikis in the role.
The way Hamm’s revival of the series is receiving a halfhearted dual release in some theaters and on VOD suggests how little faith Miramax has in the project. The movie, though, says otherwise. It’s fleet and amusing — the kind of comedy grown-up moviegoers used to see a lot more regularly than they do today. Comedies have fallen out of favor in a cinematic landscape that’s more devoted to Liam Neeson-style revenge movies, but Confess, Fletch is refreshing, not just for how it uses comedy, but for how it uses Jon Hamm.
Mottola (who also made Superbad and Adventureland) has a knack for shooting comedies as if they’re real movies, rather than overlit sitcoms. He doesn’t sacrifice visual humor for the sake of aesthetics. His work here with cinematographer Sam Levy has a dusky glow, while the cuts and reaction shots have a no-fuss steadiness that recalls Steven Soderbergh in his more deadpan mode. At times, the movie could stand to hold its plot at a greater distance and luxuriate a bit more in its atmosphere, like The Long Goodbye, or in its oddball comic characters, like The Big Lebowski. Then again, some of the movie’s broader interludes fall a little flat — chiefly the role for Marcia Gay Harden as Angela’s cartoonishly accented mother, an irrepressible character who could stand to repress a little more.
Hamm, on the other hand, seems to be right on Mottola’s wavelength. He understands that finding the common ground between mystery and farce might be more important than scoring with individual jokes. Hamm has long telegraphed his interest in comedy roles, and in this film, he proves equally capable of slapstick silliness and reacting to his co-stars’ silliness, as he does when Bridesmaids writer-actor Annie Mumolo bounces off of him in one scene. He can also handle quips and irreverence (“The emergency part is over,” he tells the cops about the murder) without turning into a Ryan Reynolds-style smarm machine.
Hamm’s movie career has existed largely in the shadow of his brilliant long-term work as Don Draper, and Confess, Fletch wasn’t designed to change that. In fact, Mottola went so far as to engineer a brief, crackling reunion with Hamm’s Mad Men co-star John Slattery. The director’s willingness to actively remind viewers of Hamm’s TV masterpiece, even as the star bumbles around sporting a Lakers cap and solving a fuzzy mystery, suggests Mottola is confident about Hamm’s draw as a comedian, even if few other directors seem to be on board. Mottola and Hamm don’t seem like they’re trying to rewrite Hamm in Fletch’s image, or vice versa. They look more like they’re making exactly the half silly, half sly movie they personally want to see.