The Summer Of '80s Movies

The 'Fletch'-'Caddyshack' Comedy Axis

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As part of my Summer Of '80s Movies, I went down to the AFI Silver in the 150-degree heat (I am approximating) for a Friday night double-feature I can only describe as "a whole lot of Chevy Chase": Fletch (1985) and Caddyshack (1980).

Though they're five years apart and have different writers and directors, these movies have a lot in common — apart from Chevy Chase, of course. Namely: they're funny, but I didn't laugh.

Here's what I mean: When I watch Fletch, I can appreciate that it's just a lot of little jokes, and many are perfectly solid. I appreciate their quotability, too. When I was in college, one of my friends was absolutely obsessed with the line "Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo."

At the same time, I was so immersed in the artifices of the '80s comedy format that it's hard to just sink into the jokes. For one thing, the music is so characteristically and sometimes distractingly '80s-movie-ish (for lack of a description more descriptive) that I wasn't the least bit surprised to find that it was written by Harold Faltermeyer — whose claim to fame is "The Axel F Theme" from Beverly Hills Cop. He also wrote music for Top Gun, Fatal Beauty, Tango And Cash, and the Tony Danza vehicle She's Out Of Control. It's not a knock on the music, exactly, it's just so distinctive that it proclaims its era over and over, sometimes a little intrusively.

(Kenny Loggins worked on the Caddyshack music, so: same thing.)

Similarly, the throwaway nature of Fletch's love interest, Gail (played by Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, whom my brain was trying desperately to place and never would have identified as Tyra's mama on Friday Night Lights if I hadn't been able to look her up), makes that entire subplot scream "I was made in 1985, when people worried less about this kind of thing." Gail is pretty, but she has absolutely no personality to speak of.

Caddyshack, which is even older, has some of the same issues. Particularly in the case of Bill Murray (who hasn't yet adopted the dry, sarcastic, above-it-all persona he zoned in on later), I intellectually find the movie entertaining, but the rhythms are so expected — in part because this kind of humor was made wildly popular by precisely this kind of movie, which I know isn't entirely fair — that I didn't actually bust out laughing. (Although, full disclosure: many others in the theater did, and while some of it was clearly nostalgia laughter, some was not.)

This was the first movie Harold Ramis both wrote and directed, though he had been a writer on Animal House and Meatballs. Watching Caddyshack, knowing that Ramis would later work on Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, I couldn't help thinking I was more interested in where Ramis and Bill Murray went after this than I was in this.

To be fair, there are lots of other things to enjoy in Caddyshack: there's little Michael O'Keefe, who didn't become a big movie star after this, but who has worked steadily for the past 30 years, largely in television. There's Ted Knight, doing a moderately psychotic stuffed-shirt character as only he can. There's Rodney Dangerfield, asked to do absolutely nothing except walk around and be Rodney Dangerfield (and why would you really ask anything else?)

But I'm not sure the comedy in either of these is fully deserving of the reverence with which they're often discussed by the people who love them. Perhaps Chevy Chase is just too cool.

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