Directed By: Carl Reiner
Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams
Tag line: "From rags to riches... to rags"
Trivia: At the time this movie was made, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters were dating
The Jerk was a very popular film back in 1979, taking in $73 million at the box office (against an overall budget of $4 million). Even kids in my 5th grade class were fans of it, though, being only 11 at the time, they thought the funniest thing about the movie was that he named his dog “shithead”.
Raised by a family of black sharecroppers in Mississippi, lily-white Navin Johnson (Martin) is shocked to learn he was adopted (“You mean I’m going to STAY this color?”). Hoping to find his place in the world, he hitchhikes to St. Louis and gets a job at a gas station owned by Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason). Following a close call with a crazed assassin (M. Emmet Walsh), Navin quits his job to join a traveling circus, where he becomes the boy-toy of daredevil Patty Bernstein (Caitlin Adams). But the woman who captures his heart is a pretty cosmetologist named Marie (Bernadette Peters). Before long, Navin and Marie are madly in love, but after a short time together, Marie, worried the impoverished Navin won’t be able to provide for her, reluctantly leaves him. Alone and depressed, Navin’s luck finally changes when Stan Fox (Bill Macy), a customer he once helped at the gas station, patents an invention of Navin’s that prevents eyeglasses from slipping off your nose. Having already raked in tons of money selling the “Opti-Grab”, Fox makes Navin an equal partner in the business, transforming the hapless young man into an instant millionaire. With more money than he knows what to do with, Navin wins back Marie, but will they live happily ever after, or does fate have something else in store for Navin Johnson?
The Jerk boasts a number of wacky scenes that’ll have you laughing out loud. While working at the gas station, Navin discovers the Hispanic customers he’s waiting on are wanted criminals. After sneaking away to call the cops, he then tries to keep the crooks from leaving, which he does by giving them every red cent in the cash register! Navin’s sunny, somewhat naïve disposition is also a constant source of hilarity (at one point, he jumps for joy when he sees his name is listed in the phone book), but my favorite scene comes late in the film, when the now-wealthy Navin takes Marie out to dinner at a classy restaurant. When their food arrives, Navin angrily calls for the waiter, complaining that there are snails on Marie’s plate (she ordered escargot). “You’d think in a fancy restaurant like this”, Navin bellows, “you’d be able to keep the snails off the food!”
Yet as funny as The Jerk is at times, the movie itself feels more like a series of related jokes than it does a coherent feature film, tossing out one comedic sequence after another with nothing of substance to tie them together. Still, as a showcase for Steve Martin’s particular brand of comedy (he co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias), The Jerk, despite its weaknesses, will give you plenty to smile about.