Directed by Carl Reiner
Screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, Michael Elias
Story by Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb
The Jerk tells the “rags to riches to rags” story of Navin R. Johnson, a “typical bastard” to some. When the film opens, Navin is homeless and he tells the viewer “an old story, one you’ve probably heard before.” When he begins with “I was born a poor black child,” an obvious incongruity, you can tell that this is a comedy where the silly is normal and that anything can happen.
Navin had always felt different growing up with his family in Mississippi. One night after listening to the Sunday night gospel hour, the radio changes formats and plays music in a mellow mood. It speaks to something inside Navin. He realizes there’s a whole world out there to discover, so he packs up his belongings and begins hitchhiking.
Navin works a few odd jobs, gas station attendant, carnival weight-guesser, miniature train engineer, before striking it rich with his invention of the Opti-Grab, a device that keeps eyeglasses from slipping. He makes friends along the way: his trusted dog, named “Lifesaver” when it informs Navin in the middle of the night that the hotel is on fire, quickly renamed “Shithead” by an angry hotel guest when the hotel turns out there is no fire; Patty, daredevil motorcycle rider, who shows Navin what his Special Purpose is for; and Marie, the cornet-playing cosmetologist, who becomes the love of his life. He loses everything when he is hit with a class-action lawsuit, except for “the ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.”
The Jerk still holds up after 26 years. There’s a lot of comedy throughout. It is fun and goofy and has a sweetness to it that comes out of Martin’s portrayal of Navin. It is that component that is missing from the gross-out, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited comedies of today. The film has a lot of great sight gags that would work well in a silent film, like when Navin tries to foil the credit card thieves from escaping.
The film came out when Martin was a king of comedy. He had moved on from small clubs and was now playing large, sold-out arenas like a rock star. He appeared so often and was so good on Saturday Night Live that he was considered a regular. “King Tut” was a hit single off his Grammy-winning comedy album, A Wild and Crazy Guy. He even had a best-selling book, The Cruel Shoes. He was the King of All Media before Howard Stern.
The Jerk was his first-starring feature role. He had previously had tiny roles in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Muppet Movie, and was nominated for an Oscar for his 1977 short film, The Absent-Minded Waiter. Not only does Martin have a great comic timing, but he showing off an amazing physical control as illustrated by his lack of rhythm and his discovery of it. Director Stanley Kubrick is noted for liking Martin’s work in the film.
The film is rated R. I’m surprised it wasn’t resubmitted to the MPAA because it would only get a PG-13 today for mild sexual situations, the word “blowjob,” and the continual mention of the dog’s name.
The video looks good. The audio is touted for being restored and available in 5.1 Surround Sound for the first time. There’s not an amazing soundtrack, so the upgrade is of no great consequence. It is available in Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, which is always a plus.
The extras are odd and contrived because they have nothing do to with the people who created the movie. There’s a sequence that shows you how to play the song “Tonight You Belong To Me” with the Ukulele Girl portrayed by Janet Klein who performs “Lovely, Naughty and Obscure Music of the 1910’s, 20s and 30’s” with her Parlor Boys. The segment shows you finger placement to achieve notes and even allows you to tune your instrument. Then, you can play along with Janet or the sequence from the film.
Another extra is The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova that is comprised of new material shot to resemble the cat-juggling sequence from the film. The new south-of-the-border atrocities are Fish Teasing, Plant Abusing, which was so vile it had to be censored and Pet Dressing. They are amusing, but only about four minutes in length.
If you have to have the movie, go ahead and buy it, but the extras are a bit of a disappointment and as often as new editions come out it would be worth waiting for the 30th Anniversary in the hopes that it will contain deleted scenes that appeared on the “edited for television” version or a commentary track with Martin or Reiner. A Special Edition should have something special on it. This is only a minor upgrade from the previous DVD version. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you should definitely rent it and gather round a bunch of friends and a thermos filled with your favorite beverage.