by Jenny Jones
jerk noun \ˈjərk\
a : an annoyingly stupid or foolish person
b : an unlikable person; especially : one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded
--Merriam Webster Dictionary Online
I long for an app with the capability of advising me which movies to revisit. It seems impossible to guess what texts from my erstwhile youth (the much-to-regret ‘80s) hold up, and which will throw a grenade through my nostalgic memories. It’s that age-old Breakfast Club vs. St. Elmo’s Fire quandary. Without such an app, I approached my beloved The Jerk (1979) with trepidation.
Director: Carl Reiner
Producers: William E. McEuen, David V. Picker
Writers: Steve Martin, Carl Gottleib, Michael Elias
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper
Editor: Bud Molin, Ron Spang
Music: Jack Elliott
Cast: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King, Dick Anthony Williams, Bill Macy, M. Emmet Walsh
US Theatrical Release: December 14, 1979
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
And The Jerk is indeed dated, most lamentably, in being rife with squirm-inducing ethnic stereotypes: gold chain-wearing Mexican drug runners in a souped-up car; work song-singing African American sharecroppers living together in a ramshackle house. Ouch. But where the film makes it is in its egalitarian (read: abominable) treatment of everyone, particularly toward the titular character, Navin R. Johnson. Portrayed by the incomparable Steve Martin, who also co-wrote the film, well-meaning Johnson meets the definition of “jerk” by being exceedingly stupid and foolish—however, he also succeeds in being eminently likeable. The Jerk avoids the pitfalls of many comedies of this type by veering away from cruelty by creating a character we both laugh at and root for.
This rags-to-riches-to-rags story was Martin’s first headlining role, and the premise came from his standup routine in which he admits to having been “born a poor black child” who later decided to become white. The character Martin creates and fully inhabits is a moronic, unsophisticated, neophyte – one who at the beginning of the film has not yet figured out that he is adopted and “going to stay this color.” When he inadvertently strikes it rich, his vulgarity abounds. In trying to function as expected from a proper man of wealth, he flubs every element of taste – from acquiring garish nude paintings for his sprawling mansion, to his act of sending back “old” wine and the snails he assumes have crawled onto his wife’s plate at a four-star restaurant.
While the jokes in The Jerk are on the whole sophomoric, it is funny. The movie embraces all manner of low humor: crudeness, site gags, farce, satire, and blue comedy. But of course it wouldn’t be Steve Martin without some truly clever lines. The mark of a cult film, or at least a film that continues to be watched, is quotable lines, and The Jerk has those in spades.
My favorite gag is a bit that, though out-of-date, still begs a laugh. When Navin has his first official address (a broom closet at the gas station he works), he rushes to receive the delivery of the phone book, joyously shouting with unbridled enthusiasm, “The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here! . . . I'm somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity - your name in print - that makes people. I'm in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.” Of course, his unique and pitiful perspective, as per usual, gets him in trouble, as a psychopath sniper played by the hulking M. Emmet Walsh indeed finds his name in the phone book, and proceeds to stalk him.
Bernadette Peters, who plays the kewpie-dollesque love interest Marie, whose mother sacrificed everything to send her to cosmetology school to increase her lot in life, adds a human element to the film. The scene in which Navin and Marie tenderly serenade each other across a beach bonfire, while funny whenMarie she pulls out a trumpet seemingly from nowhere, is also poignant and strangely believable; these two flawed beings have found each other.