Some opening lines have become famous, "Call me Ishmael" or "It was the best of times". For films one will always stand out "I was born a poor black child." The thing is the line was delivered in a voice over by Steve Martin, a definitely white individual. This incongruous line is actually the perfect opening for ‘The Jerk’, setting the mood for what will follow through the film. Martin portrays Navin R. Johnson, who at the onset of the film is homeless and in wretched shape, breaking the fourth wall to relate to the audience how he came to such dire circumstances. Navin recalls his childhood, adopted into the large family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He never seemed to realize that he was adopted, although he always had the nagging feeling that he somehow did not belong. For one thing during a celebration he had snack cakes and a diet soda while the rest of the family feasted on far more hardy faire. While the others in the family enjoyed music, especially the blues, the lamentable Navin could not even keep time to the simplest beats.
When Navin is finally told the obvious (to all but him) truth about his origins he sets out to find himself, something a bit more en vogue back in 1979. This sets the stage for the drastic ups and downs that comprises the life of this extremely simple man. Navin winds up working for at a gas station for the abusive owner, Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason). When a customer comes in and complains about his eyeglasses Navin offers to help and with a few twists of some wires created a handle for the customer so that removal of the spectacles would not distort the frames. The customer is amazed and promises to market the invention, sharing the proceeds 50-50 with Navin. This exchange is interrupted when shots ring out and Navin is once more on the road. The next stop is the circus where Navin becomes enamored with Marie (Bernadette Peters), a rather masculine motorcyclist who introduces Navin into manhood, so to speak. Eventually Marie will marry Navin but their relationship is not based on love, well not from Marie’s viewpoint. She leaves him when it looks like he has no financial prospects but changes her mind when the gas station customer is reunited with Navin. It turns out the simple device is now Opti-Grab, the old promise for sharing the profits is kept and Navin is instantly a multi-millionaire.
This is not a film full of the urbane, dry, witty humor so often found in British sit-coms. This is good old fashion American foolishness, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. Sure, I like a thinking comedy but enjoyment of this more intelligent humor does not preclude laughing at plain old silly slapstick. Much of what is found in this film is just that, silliness at an often juvenile level. There is a very gentle charm to this movie; nothing mean or hard hearted is displayed at any time. While some more recent comedies the laugh is at the expense of the comedian, usually the result of some physical harm, what made me laugh here was the sheer nonsense involved. This is a prime example of reduction to the absurd, making others laugh by taking the most ludicrous path possible. There is also the fact that Americans love a rag to riches story, watching the underdog win out. Here we get that incorporated in the roller coaster life of this ultimate fall guy.
This was the first feature film that cast Steve Martin in the leading role. He was already a familiar face on television having been on such shows as the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher (younger readers please ask your parents about these shows), and at least eight appearances on Saturday Night Live as the host with numerous other guest appearances there. Although Martin as matured over the years with his comedy and even taken a few stabs at drama such as his roles in ‘The Band Played On’ and ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘The Jerk’ represents Martin at his early, zaniest best. After all a man that is willing to play the banjo in a white suite while wearing an arrow through his head is not overly concerned with looking foolish in front of the audience. Martin is like the friend that most of us have who is willing to make a joke no matter what the circumstances. He has one of the most natural senses of comic timing and physical humor found in any modern comedian. He can garner a laugh with a simple look or movement or make us roll on the floor with a few well placed words. Bernadette Peters is nothing less than a legend in the entertainment industry. I have seen her perform live on the Broadway stage and she owns any role she takes on. This woman can sing, dance and tell a joke with the best around. No one could have handled the off beat role here the way she does. The chemistry between Martin and Peters is a joy to watch even in such a ridiculous vehicle as this one.
Carl Reiner is one of the founding fathers for comedy on television. Back in 1954 he worked on the Sid Caesar television show and eventually Reiner was the creative force for one of the earliest and still beloved sit-coms, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner treated this film almost as homage to the days of vaudeville, the clown in the baggy paints and sad face making the audience laugh at his dire plight. He paces this film in a gentle, flowing manner. The audience is never assaulted with the humor; we are given enough time to actually care about Navin making us laugh all the more. There are few men out there that could have produced so much out of such a simple plot. After all it is not the story that is important here, the humor is in the telling.
Universal has presented this film in a special 26th anniversary edition that is far better than previous releases. The audio is now available in full Dolby 5.1 although the rear speakers and sub woofer do not get too much of a work out. Over the entire audio field is well balanced ad clear with reasonable separation between the front channels. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is very good, clear with a well rounded color palette. With this edition there are two new extras that are as strange as the movie itself. First there is a set of clips that teaches you how to play "Tonight You Belong To Me" on the ukulele. There is even a section to correctly tune your instrument and an explanation of what a capo is ad how to play it. You get instructions from the Ukulele Gal herself or you can play with the Jerk. The second feature is "The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova". Least just say that it is stranger that words can describe but I did laugh. This is a classic comedy that many just didn’t get but more than worth getting and deciding for yourself, you just may be pleasantly surprised.