Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that redefines race relations within the country. This is not one of those movies. In fact, this is a movie that comes along once in awhile, leaping off of a simple piece of a stand-up routine. It’s also a movie that really allowed it’s star to shine brightly, proving that he was more than just a television and smoky comedy club star. That movie, of course, is The Jerk.
The Jerk (1979)
The Jerk tells us the story of Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin). It begins with Navin homeless, relating his story, including his origins as a “poor black child”. Navin is a bit of a simpleton, and doesn’t seem to realize that he’s actually a white man, who was adopted into a black family. This is underscored by his exclamation of “You mean I’m gonna STAY this color?” when the news of his adoption is brought to him. Navin is also naturally gifted with a distinct lack of rhythm, but a song on the radio seems to speak to him, and he sets out on a voyage to find meaning to his life. Along the way, he gets a dog, invents the Opti-Grab, joins a traveling carnival, and finds plenty to do with his “special purpose”. Eventually, he falls in love with Marie (Bernadette Peters), gets rich, learns that the Opti-Grab makes things worse for people, loses his fortune, and loses Marie, setting the stage for his homeless narration. The film doesn’t end there, however, as Navin is rescued from the streets (and poverty) by Marie returning for him, bringing his family along. The story ends with a rousing dance number, complete with Navin showing his perfect rhythm.
The story of The Jerk isn’t breaking any new ground, as it relates a tale of a man finding the meaning to his life, losing everything, and eventually regaining it. However, it is in the way that the film handles this story, and the way that Steve Martin portrays the simple-minded Navin, that makes the film such a comedic classic. Navin, up to the point where he walks out on Marie (taking everything he needs, including his ashtray, his paddle-ball game, and his dog. Actually, scratch that about the dog) seems to honestly be trying his best to be helpful, he just doesn’t really get the nuances of life around him. In the opening narration, he refers to himself as a jerk, but, truth be told, that really is only applicable in his late interaction with Marie, as the rest of the time, Navin is shown to be considerate and kind, sending small amounts of money back home to his family the entire time he is on his voyage.
Based on a joke from one of Martin’s own stand-up routines, the movie gains it’s life and energy from Martin’s performance. It is his creation of Navin R. Johnson that helped pave the path for Martin’s future success, whether you’re looking at films like The Three Amigos, LA Story, or later efforts like Shopgirl. Martin is able to capture the role perfectly, and, with a character that could have been highly offensive, Martin infuses it with a deep affection and charm that is hard to pass by. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task of filling their roles, most notably with Bernadette Peters as Marie. It doesn’t seem like it would be easy to keep up with Martin’s frenetic energy, but it also doesn’t seem like it would be dull. In fact, the way the film comes across is less about a group of people slaving away to make a finished product, and more about a group of friends having fun riffing off of each other, while a camera happens to capture some of it.
Of course, another thing that makes The Jerk a classic is the highly quotable nature of the film. Whether it’s Navin extolling people to “stay away from these cans”, his realization about the “profit deal”, or oddly touching song about a Thermos for Marie, the film is scattered throughout with lines that are not only ridiculous, but are bound to linger in the mind of the viewer for quite some time afterwards. The film never takes itself too seriously, and the script seems almost as though it was written to make sure that being taken seriously was an impossibility.
In the same way that some stand-up routines have proven to stand the test of time (Cosby’s “Fatherhood”, Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television”), there are some comedies that also remain, and are funny decades later, both the new viewers, and to people that have seen them previously. The Jerk is one of them, and definitely deserves to be listed as one of the greatest comedies of all time.