The Jerk: 26th Anniversary Edition
January 31, 2006
One of the staples of comedy is the dumb guy movie that features a protagonist so clueless and so stupid that he somehow bungles his way through a series of misadventures. Each generation has someone who excels at this kind of comedy: Gene Wilder, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and in the late ‘70s it was Steve Martin. The Jerk (1979), coupled with successful comedy albums and his numerous appearances Saturday Night Live, catapulted him into fame on a mainstream level.
Navin Johnson (Martin) is the adopted son of a poor, black sharecropping family in the South. This leads him to believe that he is also black even despite his obvious skin colour. After being told he’s adopted and finding out that he’s got rhythm later that night (in a very funny scene), Navin decides to leave home and experience the world. Along the way he gets involved with a sweet girl (Peters) that blossoms into a touching romance, even if their first kiss is a little unorthodox.
The premise of this film alone is hilariously absurd and it only gets more surreal as Martin goes all out with his role. He attacks it with the fearless abandon of someone either truly inspired or crazy…or maybe both. Watching this movie after all these years makes one remember what a gifted physical comedian Martin was. He flaps his arms around like a madman and leaps all over the place in a way that makes you realize how much Jim Carrey ripped off this movie for his Dumb and Dumber (1994) role. Just watch how Martin moves when trying to keep a car full of criminals at his gas station to see how his exaggerated movements have inspired other comedians. He has that crazed look in his eyes and a goofy grin of a holy fool.
The Jerk works so well because it is built upon one clever comedic set piece after another with each one taking its time to set up a gag before finally delivering with the inevitable punchline. There are memorable sight gags like when Navin inadvertently invents a handle for eyeglasses and is almost killed by a crazy sniper (Walsh). He can’t understand why nearby oil cans suddenly develop leaks until his boss (Mason) tells him to take cover. The dialogue is also memorable. For example, Navin cashes a check at a bank and is asked to produce two pieces of ID. One is a temporary driver’s license and the other is his astronaut’s application form. “I failed everything but the date of birth,” he tells the bank employee matter-of-factly.
The appeal of a movie like The Jerk is obvious. We feel better about ourselves watching somebody who is much dumber than we are. The poor schlub also illicits our sympathy because he (or she) is usually pitted against someone smarter, meaner and more powerful. They try to keep the protagonist from realizing their dreams. Navin has a certain naïve charm that makes him a very appealing character so that we want to see him succeed.
Some dumb guy movies feel forced and one-dimensional (as some of Carrey’s comedies and early Sandler movies) but the heir apparent to Martin’s performance in The Jerk is clearly Adam Sandler. In a film like The Waterboy (1998), Sandler plays a naïve, dumb guy who also succeeds despite the odds and gets involved in a sweet, heartfelt romance. The Jerk has gone on to inspire countless comedies and provide a template for many dumb guy roles (one only has to see Will Ferrell talking to his dog in Anchorman to see the influence that Martin’s film still has) but rarely achieve the level of inspired lunacy that Martin’s film does so well.
For such a classic, highly regarded comedy the lack of and inferior quality of the extras is a crime.
First up is a step-by-step instructional video on how to play “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the ukulele. While it is kinda cool to be able to follow all the notes and spots on the guitar that you need to know, this extra feels inconsequential even for The Jerk.
Perhaps the most disappointing extra is “The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova,” which attempts (badly) to recreate the grainy bootleg film that appears in the movie but continues on with someone who doesn’t even resemble Martin!
Things improve slightly with a vintage (and very funny) theatrical trailer.
In lieu of a Making Of featurette there are production notes that include lots of interesting factoids and quotes from Martin and director Carl Reiner who recount anecdotes of filming The Jerk.
What the…?! Were these extras put together by Navin himself? Nah, they would’ve been funnier. You know the extras stink when the best thing is the trailer. Simply dreadful.