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The Jerk (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

The Jerk

THE JERK (1979)

Starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Jackie Mason, Mabel King, Richard Ward, Dick Anthony Williams, Bill Macy, M. Emmett Walsh, Dick O’Neill, Maurice Evans, Helena Carroll, Ren Woods, Pepe Serna, David Landsberg, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Rob Reiner, William Schallert and Carl Reiner.

Screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Ellis.

Directed by Carl Reiner.

Distributed by Universal Home Video. 94 minutes. Rated R.

In 2005, there are two Steve Martins. There is the smart, sophisticated Martin. He is an art collector, a writer of essays, plays, novels and a series of brilliant comic films (including Roxanne, Bowfinger, LA Story and hopefully the upcoming adaptation of his novella Shopgirl.) He is also a wonderfully smart actor and comic who can work brilliantly in other people’s comedies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood, Father of the Bride, The Housesitter, Planes Trains & Automobiles) and dramas (The Spanish Prisoner, Grand Canyon and his good work in the okay Leap of Faith). 

The second Steve Martin is more problematic – he’s still a brilliant comic performer, but he’s one who is willing prostitute himself and take any crappy script that comes his way. Cheaper by the Dozen, The Out-Of-Towners, Sgt. Bilko, Mixed Nuts, Novocaine, Father of the Bride 2, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, My Blue Heaven and more... the list is too long and too depressing to ponder.

However, there was a third, almost forgotten Steve Martin. Steve Martin the gonzo stand-up comic, a man who revolutionized the form with his slyly surreal, disarmingly stupid and unflinchingly strong comic vision.

The Jerk was Martin’s debut film (unless you count a hilariously funny cameo in The Muppet Movie and a lesser spot in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and much more than any future performance, it captured the manic energy of Martin’s stand-up comic persona. This is because The Jerk was written specifically to play off of Martin’s best-selling comedy records. It even visualized some of Martin’s off-beat comic riffs (the cat juggling sequence is much funnier than you’d want to believe – and no cats were harmed, honest…)

The Jerk was a trailblazer in the current so-stupid-it’s-smart school of comic filmmaking. Without it The Farrelly Brothers, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and Will Ferrell would not have a career. (I’m still debating whether or not that is a good thing.) However, The Jerk is not just going for dumb laughs (which are there, of course, by the bucketload), but it is also a sly and knowing parody of the American dream. The Jerk shows that no one is so down and out and useless that they can’t become rich and famous, and then lose it all spectacularly.

Martin plays Navin Johnson, the son of a southern sharecropping family who has never understood why he does not fit in with his funky, spiritual family. He finally finds his calling when he hears Muzak on the radio, so his mother (Mabel King) has to admit that he was adopted. (“You mean I’m going to stay this color?” he moans.)

He goes out on the road to find fame (“The new phone books are out! The new phone books are out! I’m somebody now. My name is in print.”) and fortune (his first job nets him $1.10 an hour.) He floats through dead end jobs from gas attendant to carny. He gets involved with a tough motorcycle stuntwoman. He is stalked by a mad sniper (M. Emmitt Walsh). (“He hates these cans!”) He makes a gadget to keep a traveling salesman’s (Bill Macy – Maude‘s husband, not the Mamet regular) glasses from slipping down which becomes a sensation.

Then Navin meets the love of his life – a “kewpie doll” played by Martin’s then-girlfriend and current Broadway baby Bernadette Peters. When his gadget becomes a sensation, he finds love and money and a perfect lifestyle, but of course it is all a matter of time before it comes crashing down.

As you can tell, lots of things happen but there isn’t much story going on. That’s okay, though, this movie was a showcase for the comic stylings of its star, not a drama. It is just a long series of skits stitched together to make a story. Not all of The Jerk has aged all that well and some of the jokes strain to be funny. But the film is still a fascinating look at a nascent movie career. And you’ll laugh at it a hell of a lot more than you would if you checked out the debuts of most of the comics who tried to follow in his footsteps. (8/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: August 11, 2005.

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