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Jerk, The (1979)

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Score: 9/10

Genre: Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: December 14th, 1979 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Carl Reiner Actors: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, M. Emmet Walsh, Bill Macy, Jackie Mason

I

t starts out very strong but runs out of ideas toward the end, though it never compromises its goal of being laugh-out-loud ludicrous while still retaining a wealth of heart. The increasingly silly things that happen to the lead character at first appear random, but there’s an overall purpose behind each venture aimed at smartly tying all the individual comedic skits together. “The Jerk” is brilliant in its storytelling design and its face-value simplicity, and is very frequently funny. Adorned with the hilariously animated slapstick of Steve Martin, which is never obnoxious, crude, or annoying, the film offers up an initial level of straightforward enjoyableness (without tear-jerking relationship woes or mean-spirited conflicts) that quickly transcends its outward dumbness for well-balanced entertainment.

“I once had wealth, power and the love of a beautiful woman,” explains Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin), now a bum sitting outside in the dark on a staircase with a couple of unconscious drunks. The camera moves closer, as if inquiring about his story, and he goes on to narrate: “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child” (stealing a line inspired by Martin’s own stand-up routine). Navin always knew he didn’t quite fit in (especially considering he’s white) and on his birthday, his African-American mother finally admits that he was adopted. He’s incredibly naïve (and borderline mentally deficient), but it’s time for him to go out on his own. Encouraged by music from a radio station, he aims to pursue his destiny in St. Louis.

“Lord loves a workin’ man.” “Don’t trust whitey.” With these two final departing phrases of advice, he sets off to hitchhike his way to town. At this point, he’s not a jerk as much as he’s just plain stupid. Unbelievably stupid. In no time at all, he arrives at a gas station where he’s offered a job by Mr. Hartounian (Jackie Mason). Not long thereafter, he gets listed in the phone book and is coincidentally targeted by a serial killer who randomly chooses his name from the Yellow Pages – all during the very same day that he helps out a novelty inventor, Stan Fox (Bill Macy), in desperate need of something to help hold up his glasses. On the run from the sniper, he hightails it to a carnival, where he picks up another job as a weight-guesser, and winds up being seduced by the stunt biker woman, Patty (Catlin Adams), a rambunctious, violent tart with little concern for hygiene.

As the carnival travels, he eventually meets Marie (Bernadette Peters), a cosmetologist that sweeps him off his feet. But her mother insists that she marry a man of money, power, and vision – someone with a special purpose – so she leaves him for a suitor with potential. Determined to win back Marie, Navin sets out to Los Angeles to devise a plan – and is surprised by a huge fortune from the success of the “optigrab” glasses contraption developed by Fox.

The ingenious thing about this film is the way it can take serious situations and drastically interfere with them using an unexpected comedy device – such as when Marie and Navin have their first date (eating “Pizza in a Cup”) interrupted by an utterly nonsensical conversation, or through visual pranks, as seen when the couple have a romantic walk on the beach and Marie pulls out a trumpet from nowhere to compliment their casual singing. These spontaneous sequences of humor and gross departure from reality set “The Jerk” apart from similar romantic comedies and help lay the groundwork for rapid-fire spoof movies like “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun.” In the end, it’s a not-so-classic tale of rags to riches to rags again, mixed with all manners of illogical relationships and incongruous gags, as told by the supremely sarcastic, creative, and effectively sentimental minds of star Steve Martin and director Carl Reiner (with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias penning the screenplay alongside Martin).

– Mike Massie

 



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