The Jerk (1979) starring Steve Martin

The Jerk: written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias; directed by Carl Reiner; starring Steve Martin (Navin Johnson) and Bernadette Peters (Marie) (1979): Before Airplane and ZAZ and the Farelly Brothers, there was Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Launched off Martin’s gigantic success in stand-up comedy and then as a guest on Saturday Night Live, The Jerk was a big deal in 1979. I remember because I was 11, and like all 11-year-old boys, I wanted to see The Jerk but couldn’t because it was Restricted at a time when Restricted really meant you couldn’t see a film in a theatre if you weren’t 18. A family VCR was still three years away.

The Jerk holds up well, though it may surprise people who’ve gotten accustomed to Shop Girl, banjo-touring, sophisticated-but-for-The-Pink-Panther movies Steve Martin. The Jerk is all about swearing and occasionally pushing the taste envelope — never moreso than in the basic set-up, which sees white foundling Navin Johnson (Martin) raised by a stereotypical poor rural Southern African-American family.

But Navin doesn’t know he’s adopted until his parents tell him. “You mean I’m going to stay this colour forever?” Navin wails. But late at night, a radio left on to some easy listening music grants Navin an epiphany: he’s discovered music he can successfully dance to! And so he’s off to find his fortune. 

Could a movie that gifts the viewer with not one but two mostly African-American singalongs to “Me and My Buddy Gonna Pick a Bale of Cotton” possibly be made today? I don’t know. Navin’s adoptive family is smarter and nicer than everyone in the film not played by Bernadette Peters, and the racial satire is a satire of racial portrayals and not an approval of them. Like I said, I don’t know.

Certainly white culture comes in for its own slams, along with everything else. But the movie is really a satire of the entire concept of a bildungsroman; it’s a lot more sophisticated than it seems. And some of its best moments come in the throwaway bits (for some reason, Pizza in a Cup makes me laugh, as does the washroom key to Navin’s first job at a gas station). Peters is a comically gifted actress. The Thermos song is a hoot. And Jackie Mason, Maude’s Bill Macy, and Jackie Mason keep things lively once Navin gets to the big city. But beware… life always throws an Iron Balls McGuinty at you some time. Recommended.

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