The Jerk (1979)

There’s just something about the wintry months of January and February that gives me unbelievable depression. Something about the beginning of the year, the reluctance of starting a new one and the woes of having just finished another without accomplishing anything you wanted to. Its too cold to go outside, staying in doors too much creates cabin fever. There’s just not a lot to keep one going. So in these months to cure all my ills I tend to supply myself with a daily dose of comedy. After all, next to morphine laughter truly is the best medicine.

What better way to start a comedy run than with the legend himself Steve Martin. Fact: If you don’t like Steve Martin or Bill Murray then you have no soul. Which is fine by me because I wouldn’t want the comedy genius of Martin or Murray bringing joy to your soulless existence anyway. I consider myself a connoisseur of comedy. I appreciate nearly every kind and have the ability to find the humor in the most darkest or slapstick of situations. Carl Reiner and co-writer Steve Martin’s 1979 classic The Jerk has it all.

Comedy is tricky. A comedy where your lead character is a compete imbecile must be treated delicately. Your character must be unaware of his actions, child-like but without being precocious and must carry a complete innocence with them. Stupid but nice is funny, Stupid and mean spirited is not. Behold Navin Johnson. The epitome of idiotic innocence. Navin Johnson is simple-minded but he is not simple. Born to an all-black family, Navin knows deep down that he just doesn’t fit in. He knows this because he doesn’t share the rhythm of dance that his family does (watching Martin boogie out of synch with his family is a visual sight gag to behold) and his eating habits are somewhat out of the norm to his family (“I made your favorite: a cold-cut sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise and two Twinkies”). When Navin is told by his mother that he was adopted he worryingly responds “You mean I’m gonna stay this color?” Life for Navin changes that night when while lying in bed he comes across the beautiful jazz song Crazy Rhythm. He’s feet begin tapping for the first time to the beat. He ecstatically wakes up the household to show off his new found ability and declares “If this is out there! Think about how much more is out there!”. For all its hilarity this scene is a truly wondrous and uplifting moment about the sanctity of life. Navin’s adventure is about to begin.  Navin accepts the advice given to him by his family with great simplicity (“God loves a working man, Don’t Trust Whitey, See a Doctor and Get rid of it.”) and sets merrily on his way to adolescence.

Navin’s journey takes him to all corners of life. From a gas station attendant hunted by a deranged sniper, to being the sex slave of a biker chick in a traveling circus and finally to the billionaire heir of the Opti-Grab glasses holder empire. The magic of the movie is to watch Navin’s innocence continue as his morals and ideals are forever changed by the real world. Upon his first hitchhike Navin asks the driver “How far you going?” Driver responds “To the end of this fence.” Navin: “….Okay!”. Its a ridiculous gag saved by the excitement in Steve Martin’s voice. Same goes for a sequence in which Jackie Mason playing the gas station owner who goes to show Navin a small work room in the back he may use as a place to live. Navin and the owner enter a men’s room leading to the work room and Navin mistakes the toilet for being his newly promised quarters. He begins planning the whole thing for renovation and when Mason tells him “No, no, its in here” Navin shrugs and goes “I couldn’t afford this place anyway”.

The Jerk also carries with it a sublime love story thanks to the impeccable timing of Bernadette Peters with exchanges like this one:

Navin R. Johnson: Now be totally honest. You do have a boyfriend don’t you.
Marie: Kind of
Navin R. Johnson: I know this is our first date but do you think the next time you make love to your boyfriend you could think of me?
Marie: Well I haven’t made love to him yet.
Navin R. Johnson: That’s too bad. Do you think its possible that someday you could make love with me and think of him?
Marie: Who knows maybe you and he could make love and you could think of me.
Navin R. Johnson: I’d be happy to be in there somewhere.

If you hate cans, snails or cat jugglers. If you love pizza in a cup or diamonds so big there gonna make you puke. And if you don’t need one more thing…just this ashtray…and this paddle game…and this chair…and the remote control and the matches and nothing else. Then I invite you to pick out a Thermos, join me in a chorus of “You Belong To Me” and watch The Jerk this weekend.



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