The Jerk - 26th Anniversary Edition
In 2005, there are two Steve
Martins. There is the smart, sophisticated Martin. He is an art
collector, a writer of essays, plays, novels and a series of brilliant comic
films (including Roxanne, Bowfinger, LA Story and hopefully the
upcoming adaptation of his novella Shopgirl.) He is also a
wonderfully smart actor and comic who can work brilliantly in other people's
comedies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood, Father of the Bride, The
Housesitter, Planes Trains & Automobiles) and dramas (The Spanish
Prisoner, Grand Canyon and his good work in the okay Leap of Faith).
The second Steve Martin is
more problematic – he's still a brilliant comic performer, but he's one who
is willing prostitute himself and take any crappy script that comes his way. Cheaper by
the Dozen, The Out-Of-Towners, Sgt. Bilko, Mixed Nuts, Novocaine, Father of
the Bride 2, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, My Blue Heaven and more...
the list is too long and too depressing to ponder.
However, there was a third,
almost forgotten Steve Martin. Steve Martin the gonzo stand-up comic,
a man who revolutionized the form with his slyly surreal, disarmingly stupid
and unflinchingly strong comic vision.
debut film (unless you count a hilariously funny cameo in The Jerk The Muppet
Movie and a lesser spot in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and much more than any future performance, it captured the manic
energy of Martin's stand-up comic persona. This is because The Jerk was
written specifically to play off of Martin's best-selling comedy records.
It even visualized some of Martin's off-beat comic riffs (the cat juggling
sequence is much funnier than you'd want to believe – and no cats were
The Jerk was a
trailblazer in the current so-stupid-it's-smart school of comic filmmaking.
Without it The Farrelly Brothers, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider
and Will Ferrell would not have a career. (I'm still debating whether
or not that is a good thing.) However, The Jerk is not just
going for dumb laughs (which are there, of course, by the bucketload), but
it is also a sly and knowing parody of the American dream. The Jerk
shows that no one is so down and out and useless that they can't become
rich and famous, and then lose it all spectacularly.
Martin plays Navin Johnson,
the son of a southern sharecropping family who has never understood why he
does not fit in with his funky, spiritual family. He finally finds his
calling when he hears Muzak on the radio, so his mother (Mabel King) has to
admit that he was adopted. ("You mean I'm going to stay this color?"
He goes out on the road to
find fame ("The new phone books are out! The new phone books are out!
I'm somebody now. My name is in print.") and fortune (his first job
nets him $1.10 an hour.) He floats through dead end jobs from gas
attendant to carny. He gets involved with a tough motorcycle
stuntwoman. He is stalked by a mad sniper (M. Emmitt Walsh).
("He hates these cans!") He makes a gadget to keep a traveling
salesman's (Bill Macy – Maude's husband, not the Mamet regular)
glasses from slipping down which becomes a sensation.
Then Navin meets the love of
his life – a "kewpie doll" played by Martin's then-girlfriend and current
Broadway baby Bernadette Peters. When his gadget becomes a sensation,
he finds love and money and a perfect lifestyle, but of course it is all a
matter of time before it comes crashing down.
As you can tell, lots of
things happen but there isn't much story going on. That's okay,
though, this movie was a showcase for the comic stylings of its star, not
a drama. It is just a long series of skits stitched together to make a
story. Not all of The Jerk has aged all that well and some of
the jokes strain to be funny. But the film is still a fascinating look
at a nascent movie career. And you'll laugh at it a hell of a lot more
than you would if you checked out the debuts of most of the comics who tried
to follow in his footsteps.
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Posted: August 11, 2005.