It was sheer dumb luck that while reading Steve Martin’s autobiography earlier this year I saw his film The Jerk was being shown on tv. A few months later and the threat of my DVR being erased, I finally took the time to view it. Martin definitely did something special, infusing his stand-up routine into a story of one man’s rise to wealth and subsequent loss of everything. His crazy persona takes center stage right from the start as we meet Navin Johnson, not a bum on the street, but a jerk who has lost it all. His slowed down drunk speech and deep tones as he begins to tell the camera the story of his life set up the collection of gags and jokes you can’t even imagine will come your way. Here we have a man that was born into a black southern family, always wondering why his skin was so light and why he could never keep up with the rhythm of blues music. With a penchant for Twinkies and Tab cola, something was amiss and only when he heard a strange new song on the radio, one his white body could dance to, does he realize he needed to see the world and show it his “special purpose”.
I really think I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time with this character if I hadn’t read Martin’s book first. Knowing his stand-up background made it fun to spot tired and true aspects throughout the movie. You have the juggling, the ukulele, and the “all I need is this ashtray, and I don’t need anything else, well except this paddle-game, all I need is this ashtray and the paddle-game … and these matches …” schtick that surprising goes on long in the film, but never gets old. I think it has to do with the way it is shot, in a still-framed composition as he gradually goes further and further away, his voice getting softer and softer. It really is well-orchestrated and credit goes to either he or director Carl Reiner for the success. There are definite lulls in the action, as is inherent in films like this being a stream of jokes tied together, but there is bound to be some failures amongst the true gems. When the laughs hit, though, they hit pretty hard—even if it might just be because of how off-the-wall the gag is.
For a guy like Martin, fresh off of his club appearances and television variety shows, he is quite a natural. The Jerk marks his first major film role, the lead part in his own movie, something that shows how powerful he was based on record sales alone and no real reputation for acting onscreen. He gets his wild and crazy guy dancing involved along with other staples from his repertoire to help the audience find their bearings and remember that this is the guy they hear at home every night for laughs. This really is the start of a powerhouse’s career and he planned it out to perfection.
Having a supporting cast like he does can’t hurt either. Bernadette Peters did not have many film jobs beforehand, probably just known mostly for her stage work. Her vocal prowess is on display as well as her comedic timing and blank face reactions to Martin’s antics. I don’t know if anyone else could have taken his face lick with such class. Martin’s family is a lot of fun too, always singing and dancing and trying their best to make him a part of the group. I really enjoyed Dick Anthony Williams as his brother Taj. This is the one person who understands the absurdity of the situation and when Navin writes home about the possibility of a new job from his girlfriend, Williams’ smirk and laughter is absolutely fantastic.
A lot works and plenty doesn’t, but when you understand the film’s place in history, you must give it a lot of credit. People took a chance on this unproven young man and ushered in a new era of comedians. With “Saturday Night Live” beginning it’s perpetual lifespan around the same time, The Jerk became a sign of things to come. If you look at the comedy world today, everything seems to be manifested from the minds of comedians who started on stage or in tv. Shows are based on comedy acts and films molded from characters. Most of them fail miserably, but the strong success of a select few keep the money flowing, hoping to discover that next new cash cow. With scenes like those at the gas station here, Navin’s first real job, you can’t help but feel as though it could have been a skit translated and expanded for screen. Between Jackie Mason’s utter wonderment at his employee’s penchant for jubilance and M. Emmet Walsh’s search for a random civilian to murder, the scene is the highlight of a film chock full of good one-liners. When Martin looks at the exploding oil cans and then at the gun-toting whackjob, he screams, “that guy really hates cans!” I couldn’t stop laughing as he gets cornered by a coca-cola machine and a can display indoors. It is comedy gold and with plenty more to complement, you will be smiling once the credits roll.
The Jerk 7/10