Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) has fallen a long way. As he sits in an alley drowning his sorrows in alcohol, he relates the story of his life to anyone who will hear, telling of how he was born a poor black child, little realising that he was really a white boy adopted into a black family. One birthday, Navin was told by his mother (Mabel King) the truth and the news hit him pretty hard, but he got over it when he heard the dance band playing on the radio and realised that finally here was something he could dance to, as he and the blues had never connected. And so with this revelation, he decided that there must be more to life than this, and that he must leave home to find his fortune...
This was the first of the film collaborations between star and writer Martin and director Carl Reiner (Carl Gottlieb also contributed to the script and story with Michael Elias). If Woody Allen has an film career consisting of the "early funny ones" and the rest, then you could say Martin has as well as his later films rarely scaled the heights of comedy attained by these initial movies. As usual, the humour lies in being clever about being stupid, and there is a plethora of daft gags to keep you entertained, all concentrated around the idiocy of the protagonist, although he does seem to attract ridiculous happenings and characters as well.
The film may be called The Jerk, but Navin isn't really one of them. "Jerk" implies a mean-spirited quality which is never apparent in his personality: what he is is an imbecile, and Martin plays that to the hilt. His foolishness can be seen when he waves goodbye to his family only to stand at the front gate of their home with his thumb aloft, hitchhiking. And he's still there after night falls. Eventually, he is picked up, but only taken to the end of the fence; then he starts his journey proper from Mississippi to St Louis, picking up a dog he names Shithead (after advice from one of the motel guests they both wake in the middle of the night during a false alarm).
The comedy has been refined to the smallest detail - notice how when Navin is picked up by a truck he lets the dog ride in the front seat while he sits in the back - and is nothing if not consistent. The truck takes him to a gas station where he is given a job by the owner (Jackie Mason) and draws unintended mayhem as a result, most importantly a sniper (M. Emmet Walsh - listen to his bizarre insults) who sends Navin fleeing to join a travelling carnival where he gets another job, this one running a guess your weight sideshow. It is there Navin gets his first girlfriend (Catlin Adams), a rather rough lady stunt biker who teaches him about his special purpose.
What all this is leading to is a rags to riches tale when Navin's invention, casually offered to a businessman passing through the gas station, makes him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Meanwhile, he ditches his carnival girlfriend and gets a new one in the shape of beautician Marie (Bernadette Peters), and this romance is surprisingly sweet natured, while still undercut by the silliness of the humour (Marie trying to resist Navin's passionate kiss, for example). The advantage of the securing laughs from the ludicrous is that you can get away with pretty much anything (Navin beating up his racist staff is a particular highlight, especially the hilarious punchline), but it can border on being a little tedious in its insistence on taking nothing seriously. That aside, The Jerk is genuinely funny in its single minded pursuit of inanity. Music by Jack Elliott.
[The 26th Anniversary Special Edition DVD is visually an improvement over the previous DVD version, being in 1:85 ratio, and also has extra features that you probably won't watch more than once: how to learn the song sung in the film on the ukelele, a "sequel" to the cat juggling footage, a trailer and production notes.]
American actor, writer and director, a comedy specialist. He got his break writing for Sid Caesar's television show in the 1950s, then created the Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s. He moved into film with the autobiographical Enter Laughing, followed by the more serious The Comic and the controversial Where's Poppa?
In the 1970s he scored a hit with Oh God!, and then directed a string of fine quality Steve Martin vehicles: The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and All of Me. He continued to direct into the nineties, and had a good role in the Ocean's Eleven remake. Father of Rob Reiner.