WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Born a poor black child, Navin Johnson goes out into the world to find his fortune and become a man. He does both, but finds both success and love to be fickle mistresses.
Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) kind of stands out from his family. He’s just as poor as them, for sure, but there’s something about the way he connects with Easy Listening over the Blues that doesn’t sit right. He’s also incredibly pale, compared to his – as his mother reveals – adopted but loving black family.
With sage advice from his father ringing in his ears, Navin sets out to find his own way in the world, and in fairly quick order he acquires a companion in the shape of an unheroic dog he dubs ‘Shithead‘; a job, and modest lodgings, at the gas station run by Harry (Jackie Mason); a homicidal stalker (M. Emmet Walsh) who randomly picks Navin out for assassination; and a new job with the carnival, leading to romance (of a sort) with rough and ready motorcyclist Patty (Catlin Adams).
Things really get exciting when Navin meets comely cosmetologist Marie (Bernadette Peters), but their happiness is short-lived as she runs off in search of security. Luckily, Johnson’s previous practical assistance to unhappy glasses-wearer Stan Fox (Bill Macy) becomes a money-spinner, allowing Navin to win Marie back in Los Angeles. The couple revel in the vulgarity of sudden wealth, but does money really guarantee happiness? And would it matter if the money suddenly disappeared? What, are you stupid?
Right from the off – the title – and the over-arching joke about Navin’s family, it’s plain that The Jerk isn’t going to be remotely subtle. Unlike the work of his son Rob (who has a fleeting cameo), Carl Reiner’s comedy is direct and in-your-face; but as embodied by Steve Martin, it’s also very funny. After paying his dues on television, The Jerk was Martin’s first lead role; and he gives everything he has to it, combining superb comic timing and delivery with exaggerated and unexpected physical movements.
The overall effect is wild and unpredictable, but importantly not totally dumb. Were Navin just a moron, the film would be one-dimensional and tiresome (for some reason, Dude, Where’s My Car? springs to mind). Reiner, Martin and co-writer Carl Gottlieb, smarter than they let on, make Navin more an overgrown babe in the woods than a real jerk, his enthusiasm ruined by a facility for constantly jumping to the wrong conclusion. And every moment of rank stupidity is balanced by something surreal, something silly (the red and white wine coolers are superb), something deadpan or something surprisingly tender. Or, in the case of Navin’s glorious ‘I know we’ve only known each other four weeks and three days…’ speech, all of these at once.
It’s not just the Steve Martin show, either. Appearances by Jackie Mason and the director (playing himself) are essentially cameos, but the actors playing Navin’s family, Catlin Adams and especially Bernadette Peters all put in marvellous performances. Navin and Marie’s relationship is sweet and believable without ever being sickly, pepped up by the pair’s innate chemistry and Martin’s spontaneity – when he licks her face, you can tell Peters is not expecting it in the slightest. There’s a beautiful interlude as they sing You Belong to Me, and no matter how many times you see it, what Bernadette Peters does in the middle always catches you slightly on the hop. She repeatedly, handsomely proves that she’s no dolly bird, contributing her own intelligent delivery (‘I don’t care about…the money. It’s losing all the stuff!’) and matching her co-star every step of the way.
The Jerk is held together by Martin’s bravura performance and a cute, winning love story; and that‘s just as well, because the plot is as simple as they come and the construction of many of the scenes is undeniably sketch-like (so as not to say sketchy, which they’re not). The script is better than hit-and-miss, but the underwhelming moments do stack up (the cat juggling is a case of Martin hogging the limelight, and I’m not struck on his brief interlude into martial arts either, though this seems to be very much a sign of the film’s time). On the other hand, the jokes never dry up and no scene ever gets boring – even the kung fu is redeemed by the appearance of one ’Iron Balls’ McGinty.
So while The Jerk is good – better than good – it’s not a consistently great comedy movie. It does, however, feature a career-making performance from Steve Martin, a rare talent whose star would burn bright for at least the next decade before money-for-old-rope roles made his head spin*), plus some delightful supporting performances. It‘s also phenomenally quotable, and I guarantee you’ll be humming one catchy song or another for weeks after you’ve seen it.
NOTES: I have to say that, though my instinctive reaction to the ubiquitous observation ‘A film from when Steve Martin was funny’ is actually ‘Yeah, whatever.’ Why shouldn’t a man lean on his bankability once in a while?