The Jerk (1979)

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My love for Steve Martin stems purely from The Jerk. Yeah, he’s great in Father of the Bride and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is hysterical, but this movie is his best.

The Jerk is one of those comedies that is undeniably great, but I doubt it would get made today. It’s absurd and the plot is thin. Navin R. Johnson (Martin) is “a poor black child” who strikes out on his own after learning that he was adopted. After holding some lowly jobs, Navin gets rich off a ridiculous invention only to lose his fortune and the girl of his dreams (Bernadette Peters). I feel like any comedy made today would need more to the story than The Jerk has.

The story isn’t much, but what makes it are the myriad of comic gems strewn throughout. There are so many scenes and gags from this that I love: Navin naming his dog Shithead, his excitement at being in the phonebook, his sad departure from his mansion (“I don’t need anything! Except this.”). Martin is perfect as a lovable idiot and Peters is delightful as his doe eyed love interest. The two have excellent chemistry, gelling perfectly during the comedic scenes and in the few heartfelt moments included in the film.

I really think The Jerk is a movie you have to watch for yourself. It’s impossible to describe Martin’s quirky, absurd comedy. I mean, this is a movie where he sings about buying a thermos. I can tell you that it’s hysterical, but you really have to see it for yourself.

Rating: A

I am going to admit it, I’ve not seen this film as often as some of Steve Martin’s other work. I was introduced to Martin in films like Three Amigos, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Father of the Bride. I have always liked him so it is funny that I had not come across probably his best comedy. There was always a danger that a film over thirty years old would not be as funny as when it was first released, but similar to Mel Brooks, Steve Martin is able to create laughs that are still funny today.

The Jerk is the story of Navin (Steve Martin). He was adopted as a baby by a poor black family living in the South, and they have been convincing him since then he was one of their own. On his 18th birthday, his family finally explain to him that he was adopted, so Navin decides to head out into the big wide world and seek out his fortune. His travels take him across America from a start as a gas station attendant to eventually becoming a millionaire inventor. Along the way, Navin finds love with a young woman named Marie (Bernadette Peters), who also gets caught up in Navin’s unlikely life of ups and downs.

This film is still very funny. Starting from the beginning when Martin’s character begins to complain to his black family that he is going to stay this colour after discovering he was adopted. I really love this era of films, made during a time when political correctness was not needed and if something was funny, it would find an audience. It is rare that a film would be able to make the kind of out there jokes that The Jerk does, and I feel like the comedy films of today suffer because many are not willing to take the risks that this does as they would risk offending somebody. Steve Martin is terrific as the naïve Navin, he reminds me a lot of Forrest Gump, except this is clearly a comedy, whereas Gump dealt with some real issues that The Jerk completely avoids.

The Jerk set Martin on his path to becoming a star. It is not my favourite Steve Martin film, but if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t get some of his greatness he would achieve later in his career.

Rating: B-

One thought on “The Jerk (1979)

  1. You should see if you can get Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Another Martin Classic, it is all in B&W and is cut seamlessly with scenes of other classic movies & characters Humphrey Bogart from the Maltese Falcon for instance. Steve Martin is a comic genius.

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