Steve Martin’s ‘The Jerk’ is still funny 26 years later

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Watching the first few minutes of The Jerk I came to a funny realization — I’d never seen the movie unedited before. Although the film is nearly as old as I am, viewing this 26th Anniversary Edition was the very first time I’d seen it completely intact, with all the cursing and in a widescreen presentation.

All my life I thought the dog’s name was actually, “Stupid”.

Anyway, Steve Martin made his big screen debut with this film, which he developed from one of his stage acts. The story follows a white man named Navin who grew up with a black family, and has never felt like he quite fit in — he has no rhythm, loves Twinkies, and… well, is white.

But one night he hears some good old fashion “white” music that inspires him to go out and find his place in the world. He bounces around from job to job, working as a gas station attendant and a carnival roadie. During this journey, he meets up with a business man who takes one of inventions and makes it into a successful business. Suddenly, Navin is a millionaire. He marries Marie (Bernadette Peters), the love of his life, and finally finds success.

Steven Martin and Bernadette Peters star in 'The Jerk'
Steven Martin and Bernadette Peters star in ‘The Jerk’

That is, until a lawsuit destroys his company and he loses his money, his girl, and his “loyal” dog.

The Jerk is a goofy, odd-ball comedy. Martin’s Navin Johnson isn’t really a jerk, but is more like an idiot. A poor man’s version of Forrest Gump. He is nice and honest, but painfully stupid. Most people ultimately take advantage of his innocence, taking his money or giving him meaningless jobs to do. As a result you feel for him. But at the same time, Navin’s downfall is the result of his own stupidity.

As Steve Martin’s career progressed, movies like The Jerk ultimately became more sophisticated. You can really chart the development of his career in the type of character he plays. On one extreme you have Navin, and on the other you have Harris K. Telemacher in L.A. Story. There are hints of the extreme humor in that film, but it is far more calm than what’s done in The Jerk. The main character is also more sedate, odd in certain respects, but let “wild and crazy”.

What also made The Jerk so funny was how it managed to make fun of racial stereotypes. The film’s first act is all about poking fun at white people, and I would actually be surprised if such a parody would be done today.

I would be remiss is mention Bernadette Peters. I honestly think she’s at her sexiest in this film. With the sweet sunflower dresses and wide brimmed hats, she personifies what a young, innocent man may believe to be the perfect woman.

As for extras, this one has three: A lesson on how to play “Tonight You Belong To Me” on the ukulele; “The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova”, which is funny at first but goes on a little too long; and production notes which are actually pretty interesting to read (especially when you get to the part that tells of the history of the mansion used in the film).

The Jerk (1979)
The Jerk poster Rating: 7.2/10 (41,048 votes)
Director: Carl Reiner
Writer: Steve Martin (screenplay), Carl Gottlieb (screenplay), Michael Elias (screenplay), Steve Martin (story), Carl Gottlieb (story)
Stars: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King
Runtime: 94 min
Rated: R
Genre: Comedy
Released: 14 Dec 1979
Plot: An idiotic man struggles to make it through life on his own in St. Louis.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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