Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: December 14, 1979
DIRECTOR: Carl Reiner
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Victor J. Kemper
WRITERS: Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, Michael Elias
MUSIC: Jack Elliott
When you have a film that contains a dog named Shithead, you know that you will be in good hands. “The Jerk” is a film that came out in 1979 and it also contains Steve Martin’s first lead role in a movie. Martin is the one who developed the story for “The Jerk” and he wrote the final screenplay with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias.
Navin R. Johnson is a man that was, as he claims, born as a poor black child. In reality, he was left on the doorstep of a poor black family that raised and loved him like he was their own. Navin eventually hears music that he’s never heard on the radio before and sees it as a calling to discover what his destiny is in the outside world.
Throughout the film, Navin has a series of adventures and misadventures as we discover why he calls himself a jerk at the beginning of the movie. In reality, Navin is not a jerk but a lovable idiot that you can’t help but feel for and you want to see him succeed despite not knowing a damn thing about he real world.
There are a couple of minor problems with the film. The first is that some of the jokes are dated and their references may be lost on modern audiences, though this is just the result of the natural aging of the film. The second minor problem I have has to do with the nature of how the world changes around Navin.
The movie wants to have it both ways. At times, Navin is a fish out of water in a realistic world where he may not be able to function like the scene where people get seriously mad at him for yelling about a fire that doesn’t exist. Then, at other times, the world becomes absurd just to facilitate Navin’s existence in it such as the Opti-Grab becoming an improbable success.
Still, these are minor inconveniences as the story works for the most part. This is mostly due to the movie’s well balanced elements of both physical and absurd comedy and it also contains funny and very quotable dialogue. Every time I hear Navin yell, “He hates these cans”, I can’t help but crack a smile.
Martin proved with this film that not only is he strong leading man, but he also solidified his position as a true master of comedy. While most people know Martin as a strong comedic actor, he has also written several screen and stage plays that have established him as a strong comedic storyteller. “The Jerk” is one of the best examples of that aspect of Martin’s talents.
Since this film contains comedy of all types, you need a comedian that is not only witty but also physical and absurd as well. This is why Martin is a triple threat and while he has starred in several successful comedies since this movie, “The Jerk” is really where he gets to show off all of his talents. It also helps that he has strong comedic support from his costars.
The strongest costar is Bernadette Peters who gives a soft, caring, and funny performance as Marie, Navin’s love interest throughout the movie. She is a smart and competent character, but Peters is also good with the absurd comedy. This helps make you believe that this woman could fall for Martin’s idiot character.
The movie contains several memorable jokes and thankfully, it still works today much as it did back when it was released. If you have never seen “The Jerk”, then you are missing out on some truly funny and memorable moments. The movie may be about a guy who goes from rags to riches and right back to rags, but this movie is pure comedy gold.