The Jerk Artwork by Mister G

The Jerk

Director: Carl Reiner / Writer: Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb / DoP: Victor J. Kemper / Editor: Bud Molin

Cast: Steve Martin / Bernadette Peters / Catlin Adams / Mabel King / Richard Ward / M. Emmet Walsh / Jackie Mason

Year: 1979

A Knee-Jerk Reaction…

So then, Dear Reader, we come to The Jerk: Steve Martin’s first picture and one he co-wrote with Carl Gottlieb (and a couple of others), from his own original idea. Actually, it was less of an idea and more just a single line: ‘I was raised as a poor, black kid’. That’s the complete opposite of the lanky, blonde Martin of course and what makes it so… funny.

Steve Martin’s journey into comedy’s first rank was as unusual as most of them are. Beginning as a stall-barker in Disneyland, he moved into theatre and then on to stand-up, where he really came into his own as a performer. His routines generally revolved around a gurning, clownish idiocy behind which, lay a calculated intent and an intuitive, razor-sharp understanding of what a live audience craved at any given moment.

Watching footage of him now, wearing a fake arrow through his head and acting the fool, you might struggle to see his achievements as a performer, but back in the early-mid Seventies, Martin’s comedy LPs were big sellers across the ‘States and his tours filled the kind of venues later associated with rock bands…

As a result, it was inevitable that he make the move to movies, though it took a while for the right deal to fall his way, until Universal came up with an offer and a director in the form of Carl Reiner; a veteran even then, with episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show, among his credits. Reiner and Martin were to form a fruitful partnership, going on to make a further three pictures together, ending with the critically acclaimed All of Me, co-starring Lily Tomlin.

But it all began with The Jerk; a picture always intended to be a modest toe-in-the-water, that would showcase Martin’s talents but wouldn’t break the studio, if it failed to connect with an audience: a common tactic for any debut, where there’s an unproven track record. So, the picture’s budget came in at just $4 million and hopes were riding high on its release in December, 1979.

The plot, such as it is, runs as follows: Steve Martin plays Navin, a member of a dirt-poor family of black sharecroppers in rural Tennessee and he’s got a problem: no, not the one that probably came to your mind, as it did mine, but rather this: he ain’t got no dang rhythm… This talented musical family are on their porch, belting-out a toe-tapping Gospel number, to which Navin’s limbs are immune. Only late one night, when the radio programme changes to a bland selection of ‘music in a mellow mood’, does he Find His Groove.

This revelation leads Navin to leave for St. Louis, for no apparent reason than that’s where the station broadcasts from. Along the way, he takes a job as an attendant in a gas station (owned by the comedic Marmite that is/was Jackie Mason), before moving on to work as – yep, you guessed it – a stall-barker in a circus (Disneyland probably said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’). Whilst there, he discovers ‘his special purpose’, in the unforgiving clutches of biker-chick Patty, before meeting his soul-mate Marie (a winsome, gawky turn from Bernadette Peters).

Whilst at the gas station, Navin invented a gadget to hold-up a customer’s spectacles and now, rebranded as the ‘Opti-Grab’, that customer has turned the invention into a smash – and Navin into an instant millionaire. The lap of luxury he and Marie now find themselves in, soon comes to an end however, when customers sue for having become cross-eyed. With financial ruin fast-approaching, Navin leaves Marie and their mansion, taking only essentials, such as ‘a chair, ashtray and a remote control. And a paddle-ball game’. He trades it all for a Thermos to remind him of Marie…

Now living on the street, in a situation as convincing as Dan Ackroyd’s in Changing Places (‘I’m not a bum, I’m a jerk!’), he’s rescued by his black family who’d wisely invested the monies Navin sent home throughout the picture. Now reunited with Marie, the family’s shack is rebuilt to accommodate the prodigal’s return: only it looks little changed than before, just a little bigger. That’d be prudence in action, so who’s the fool now?

That’s about it. If there’s any connective tissue holding this melange together, it’s the clever blend of slapstick and reactive comedy used by Martin as it plays itself-out, lifting what’s otherwise just a sequence of unconnected scenes showing Navin in different jobs / situations. Take his on-screen relationship with Patty (Catlin Adams). Her one-dimensional schtick in the movie, is this: portray a sexually-aggressive female stunt-rider, with a foul mouth and domestic habits to match. Adams plays her straight, but is given precious little to work with and in any case, is soon dispensed with; the script failing to give her character any closure. I KNOW that this is a smart-dumb comedy and that, in order to maximise my enjoyment, I should’ve turned my brain off when I pressed ‘Play’, but these annoyances keep me awake at night.

Likewise, am I the only one to have spotted how this film might’ve inspired Forrest Gump? Bear with me: both feature nice-but-dim, maladjusted child-men, who experience a wild diversity of life, get accidentally rich, have a strong sentimental side to their natures and love their Deep South Mommas! C’mon!

Yet the one aspect of this picture that made me feel most uncomfortable, is its unexpected vulgarism, sexism & racism: qualities that sometimes appear within the same scene. When viewed in context, i.e. comedy films of the late Seventies, this isn’t new but nothing dates as quickly, as comedy reflecting a contemporaneous taste. What passed for acceptable then, often won’t work now, hence why in the UK, ‘classic’ sitcoms such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, or characters like ‘Alf Garnett’ are no longer acceptable, even on 24-hour stations whose only remit is mining the back-catalogues.

I should stress that The Jerk is not denigrating African-Americans; if anything, they’re the one group that comes out with dignity (and finances) intact, but I’m uncomfortable with how their portrayal here, is intended to be a black version of ‘The Waltons‘.

Likewise, the Hispanic thieves in the gas station, with a stolen credit card, or the station’s Jewish owner with a trophy wife. And so on. It’s as though Martin wrote these characters out of laziness; a pandering for the cheap joke, rather than deliver racial-neutral material that might’ve had longer-legs. True, Martin’s physical comedy goes some way to make amends, but it’s still touch and go as to whether he’s successful. I’m undecided.

But what do I know? The picture grossed well over $100 million in the end, making a substantial return on Universal’s modest investment. It launched Steve Martin’s second career and has consistently appeared on credible, influential lists of ‘the funniest films ever made’. Like I said: ‘What do I know?’

Here’s the thing, though: why has Hollywood never re-made this picture? This is lauded as one of the comedy greats, so why not re-tool it for a younger audience with fresher stars? My guess, is that its probably been tried, yet has been discounted as being an idea ‘of its time’. Besides, Martin’s dimwitted character increasingly resembles actual celebrities of the present day! With reality shows giving voice to genuine fools, why make a movie when TV is cheaper?

I can’t lie: I did laugh aloud on at least three occasions, but the rambling plot left me cold and the creeping guilty-pleasure I felt throughout, soon made me yearn for the credits: which arrived sooner than expected.

And as for those lists… I can’t be the only one to have lifted the rose-tinted Opti-Grabs from my eyes of late, can I?

I’d love you, if you were the colour of a baboon’s ass!

The Jerk  Triple Word / Score: Cynical / Stale / Bitty / Six

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