After becoming a household name with bestselling albums and blockbuster TV appearances, comedian Steve Martin conquered the big screen with The Jerk, which he starred in and co-wrote. Instead of merely recycling audience-favorite routines, Martin and co-writer Carl Gottlieb created a proper narrative for the movie, which gives The Jerk a measure of artistic integrity. Moments like an out-of-nowhere kung fu scene break the mood, but for the most part, The Jerk is a sweet little story about an innocent adrift in the big, bad world: Think Forrest Gump with more deliberate punch lines.
The absurdist vibe is established in the opening scene, during which drunken bum Navin Johnson (Martin) declares: “I was born a poor black child.” The movie then flashes back to the homestead where Navin grew up as part of a happy but impoverished black family. Shocked to discover he was adopted (“You mean, I’m gonna stay this color?!!”), Navin leaves home to find his destiny. A job at a gas station goes awry when a nutjob sniper picks Navin’s name out of the phone book while looking for random victims, and a job with a carnival veers off-course when Navin becomes the boy toy of a psychotic female daredevil.
Eventually, Navin falls in love with soft-spoken Marie (Bernadette Peters), and then he learns that a gadget he invented is a runaway success. Wealth doesn’t bring Navin happiness, however, and the sudden loss of his unexpected riches sends him to skid row, bringing viewers back to a reprise of the opening scene.
Merely reciting the plot does little to suggest the movie’s wall-to-wall whimsy. Martin’s dialogue is filled with offbeat touches, like his character’s predilection for “Pizza in a Cup” and his belief that a thermos is an appropriate gift for a paramour. Martin spoofs Navin’s ignorance relentlessly, so viewers get gems like the letter Navin writes home to his parents: “I think next week I’ll be able to send some more money as I may have extra work—my friend Patty promised me a blow job.”
Some of the comedy is forced, like the kung fu scene, but generally, director Carl Reiner lets humor bubble up organically from the interplay between cynical modern life and simple Navin. Better still, the love scenes between Marie and Navin are gentle and sweet, foreshadowing Martin’s deft touch with romantic stories later in his career. Reiner, himself a stone-cold comedy pro, gives Martin room to spin his comic webs. In one particularly effective scene, Peters feigns sleep during a two-shot that runs for several minutes while Martin performs an elaborate routine; the sense that Reiner creates of silly things happening in otherwise realistic setting accentuates Martin’s irreverence.
Ultimately, The Jerk is a bit too lightweight, because when the movie goes for pathos toward the end of the storyline, the transition doesn’t feel natural. However, Martin’s charm and wit are irresistible; Peters is a fine light comedienne (and a voluptuous knockout); and the supporting cast includes pros like Mabel King, Bill Macy, Jackie Mason, M. Emmett Walsh, Dick O’Neill, and Richard Ward. The Jerk is merely the opening act of Martin’s beloved screen career, but it’s also 104 minutes of silly fun with heart.
The Jerk: GROOVY