In the history of third-date movies, perhaps none are as useful or relationship-defining as The Jerk. For many courting sods, The Jerk not only perfectly illustrates their particular sense of humor, but it also offers a handy screening device: She doesn’t have to love it, but understanding it is essential (just ask “Freaks & Geeks” Sam Weir). Sure, the humor is often base, random, slapstickyishly vulgar, and nonsensical, and yes, perhaps The Jerk can be best described as a series of spectacularly silly gags, but it all comes from a very intellectual place.
Steve Martin spent ten-plus years in the stand-up world; in the late 1970s, he was the most popular comedian in the country. In fact, for a two- or three-year period, he may have been the most popular stand-up comic of all time. At first blush, his act might have appeared manic, goofy, ridiculous, or even inane, but every word and every movement was developed, worked on, and perfected over that decade. He may have played the banjo with an arrow through his head while working his happy feet, but he did so with motherfucking intelligence and gusto: Bending and twisting non-sequiturs while weaving irony, self-referentialism, and parody into every aspect of his routine. It was cerebral stupidity, damnit, and it was wicked awesome. It’s also something that’s never been fully duplicated: There are a few smart comedians, and there are scores of dim-witted goofballs, but no one has combined intelligence and stupidity the way that Steve Martin did in the movies from 1979 to 1991 when, sadly, the Steve Martin most of us knew and loved passed away (he was cloned by the federal government, but Steve Martin 2.0 could only resurrect his old spirit in print).
The Jerk (released on Dec. 15, 1979, just barely qualifying for this edition of Classics Week) was the product of those ten years of stand-up comedy, a loosely plotted movie that allowed Martin to work a lot of his gags onto celluloid, and the result is the funniest movie of all time (as ranked by Gandhi, Jesus Christ, a survey of fast-moving zombies, and The Almighty Godtopus him/herself). (How else do I know that it’s the funniest movie of all time? Roger Ebert — due respect — hated it. And Ebert — due respect — has the sense of humor of wet meat; if you look at the 280 movies he considers the greatest, there are only five semi-legitimate comedies among them, and The Big Lebowski is nowhere to be found).
“I used to have wealth, power, and the love of a beautiful woman,” Navin R. Johnson says, as the movie opens with him sleeping on a stoop in a city back-alley. “Now I only have two things: My friends [points at homeless people sleeping next to him] and my thermos.” In flashback, Navin tells his story: A naive simpleton with optimism to spare, Navin was born a poor black man — his parents were sharecroppers in Mississippi. On his 30th-ish birthday, his mother reveals to him that he isn’t their natural born child (“You mean, I’m going to STAY this color?” he sobs). Suddenly feeling out of place, he decides to leave home after discovering that Lawrence Welk’s music appeals to him; for the trip, he’s given two pieces of advice from his family that we can all live by: “The Lord loves a working man” and “Don’t trust whitey.”
Navin starts his new life as a gas-station attendant, where he runs into his first bit of luck: Getting added to the phone book (“I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity — your name in print! — that makes people!”). Unfortunately, he becomes the target of a crazed assassin who picks random bastards out of the phone book to shoot (“He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!”), which leads to an ensuing chase, where Navin hops a fence and finds himself in the carnival. There, he joins the oh-so-lucrative weight-guessing profession and ultimately finds his “special purpose” when the lady daredevil takes his virginity. Soon after that, he meets his future wife, Marie (Bernadette Peters), after their first date which involves pizza-in-a-cup and very romantic lick, followed by this incredibly romantic speech, given to Marie while she’s asleep:
I know we’ve only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days. And the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day, and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in the evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.
For those who haven’t seen The Jerk, I’d be doing a disservice to go much further into the storyline, since the plot only consists of a series of mostly hilarious episodes, held together by the glue of Steve Martin’s comedic talents. To describe the film any more would be to give away all the humor. Suffice to say, in a decidedly Gumpian manner, Navin stumbles into massive wealth before losing everything, aside from … his thermos, of course, about which he even writes a song: “I’m picking out a Thermos for you. Not an ordinary Thermos for you. But the extra best Thermos that you can buy, with vinyl and stripes and a cup built right in.”
The Jerk has obviously inspired scores of imitators — half of Adam Sandler’s oeuvre, Jim Carrey comedies (most notably Dumb and Dumber), and most of Will Ferrel’s flicks owe a great debt to it (Elf, for instance, is practically a Christmas version of The Jerk). And unless you experienced The Jerk before you were introduced/subjected to Sandler, Carrey, et. al, I’m not sure it’s possible to appreciate it fully, since so much of the film has been duplicated elsewhere, in spirit at least. But Steve Martin had something his successors have never really managed: In addition to his intellectual stupidity, Martin had a brand of dopey sweetness impossible to recapture. Without the heavy dose of heart coursing through The Jerk, Martin’s character might’ve worn thin after 20 minutes. But when Navin R. Johnson walks out of his mansion, in his bath robe, with only an “ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair,” you realize that he’s not just a dimwitted jerk, he’s a dimwitted jerk you can love (save for the smell, Hoooey).
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
The Jerk / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | June 23, 2008 | Comments ()