The Jerk (1979) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for sexual humor, some drug use, some violence, and language
Running Time: 94 min.

Cast: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King, Richard Ward, Jackie Mason, Dick Anthony Williams, Bill Macy, M. Emmet Walsh, Dick O'Neill, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner (cameo)
Director: Carl Reiner
Screenplay: Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, Michael Elias

Review published April 27, 2007

Steve Martin (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Lonely Guy) stars as Navin Johnson, a white man-child living as the adopted son of a poor black Mississippi sharecropping family, and though he doesn't quite know it, his "whiteness", in both skin color and interests, has definitely made him the "black sheep" of the family.  He has an epiphany one day that there is more out there for him to see, and to find himself, he heads out on his own, without a dollar to his name or a friend in the world.

Along the way, he adopts a dog of his own (and dubs him, "Shithead"), and starts various gigs, including a gas station attendant, carnival worker, and ultimately, an unwitting inventor of the Opti-Grab, an eyeglasses add-on that keeps ones frames from slipping off the face.  He makes millions, but the one thing missing from his life has been a true and lasting love, which he once found in the fair Marie (Peters, Silent Movie), but the money has changed him, and not necessarily for the better.

Steve Martin's first starring role in a feature film proves to be a winner, with a fresh, wholly unique approach that shows dumb comedies, when done well, aren't so dumb after all.  It's the kind of movie that one almost feels guilty for laughing at so readily, but it has such a random and very odd way of looking at this simple man's world, that it sneaks up on you, never settling into a predictable groove or over-utilizing its brand of humor to the point of redundancy. 

In many ways, it is the precursor of the zany, off-the-wall comedy that many comedians are placed in, allowing them to break free creatively.  From Pee-wee's Big Adventure to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, this brand of comedy that featured a wholly insular world of oddball characters and zany developments allows the comedian to cut completely free from the mundane "real world" to fully explore the depths of a comic character of his own creation.

Because humor is in the funny bone of the beholder, here's a litmus test, in case you're interested in watching it: As Navin is working at a gas station, a crazed gunman, for reasons not apparent (he chooses Navin as his intended victim randomly out of a phone book), begins to open fire on him with a rifle, missing him, and striking some cans of motor oil next to Navin.  Navin, seeing that there is a gunman shooting, does not put 2 + 2 together, pronouncing, "It's these cans!  He hates these cans!"  Hilarious to me, but if you can't laugh at that, perhaps this is not the movie for you.

The Jerk is a must-see for anyone who considers himself a Steve Martin fan, as it easily ranks up there among his best comedies, and one of his funniest characters.  It's fascinating to get a glimpse into this absurd universe of crazies, and while it could have annoyed through overkill, there is a surprising softness and sentimentality to the characters that brings them to life, much as director Reiner had been able to with The One and Only, as more than just mere vessels to elicit easy gags.  While in the beginning, it seems farfetched for such a dumb lug to find the love of a good woman, by the end we understand -- we kinda fall in love with him too.

-- Followed by an awful Martin-less made-for-TV sequel, The Jerk, Too in 1984.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo