Two films about crime reporters. `Fletch' and `Perfect' are unimposing but likable

Hollywood keeps churning out newspaper movies at a surprising clip. ``The Mean Season'' and ``The Killing Fields'' are still fresh in memory, and ``Fletch'' and ``Perfect'' have already arrived -- less imposing than their predecessors, but likable on their own modest terms. There hasn't been so much on-screen journalism since the 1930s, when hundreds of reporters flocked through films of every kind.

The hero of ``Fletch'' is a crime reporter with a nose for trouble and a mouth for wisecracks. If that sounds familiar, it's because the movie takes many a cue from earlier days, when directors like William Wellman and Howard Hawks used to knock off pictures like this in their sleep. From the same source, ``Fletch'' borrows a breezy yet cynical mood and a smooth mixture of humor and suspense.

The plot has Fletch tracking down a drug ring -- just an excuse, really, for Chevy Chase to do his patented brand of laid-back comedy in all kinds of settings. Changing his name or appearance in every new situation, he romps through the story without a care, undercutting the whodunit angle -- he's too casual to be taken seriously as a sleuth -- but coaxing plenty of affection from the audience. Good support comes from Richard Libertini and Joe Don Baker, among others. The movie rings false only when Chase parodies or patronizes innocent targets, such as working men and women, who are treated with a condescending attitude that grated on me.

``Fletch'' is a minor movie. But not every picture has to come on strong, and it's good to see director Michael Ritchie in good form after his recent slump. He isn't as hot here as in his best movies, such as ``Smile'' and ``Semi-Tough,'' but his wit and intelligence make themselves felt more than once.

The reporter in ``Perfect'' starts at an urban daily like the one Fletch works for. But he finds happier pastures at Rolling Stone, where the editors appreciate how hip and savvy he is.

Since investigating a major government frame-up isn't enough to occupy his seething mind, he decides to expose the health-club scene to public view, as well. His aim is to ridicule the ``airheads'' and ``inflated bodies'' that populate these ``singles bars of the '80s.'' But he falls in love with a denizen of such places -- ``the Pied Piper of aerobics,'' he calls her -- and writes a hifalutin essay instead of a satire, which gets him in trouble with his boss.

Meanwhile, the government wants to heave him in jail for not revealing the sources of his frame-up article. Then his editor rewrites the health-club article, and the Pied Piper hits the ceiling. . . .

It's an awkward story, with two separate plots stitched precariously together. What makes it watchable are surprisingly capable performances by John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis, backed by a good cast -- not counting Jann Wenner, who should stick to his real-life job as Rolling Stone editor. Although the major scenes fizzle, director James Bridges gives a vivid feeling to small incidents and throwaway moments. He also gets close to the heart of one journalistic issue better than any recent movie: the effect an article's tone can have on private lives touched by it.

It's too bad Bridges didn't bring similar sensitivity to bear on the most foolish aspect of ``Perfect'': its long, lascivious ogling at exercise sessions, which give a feeble new twist to the annals of soft-core porn.

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