johnlink ranks THE JERK (1979)

THE JERK, perhaps, is Steve Martin’s very best work. I could also make an argument for some SNL stuff and LA STORY, but I think THE JERK is my favorite. Of course, all that is discounting his work on Twitter, which is entertaining daily. But, THE JERK? Classic comedy.

I watched THE JERK (1979) on 8.27.12. It was my third viewing of the film, and first in a decade or so.

“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.”

That shouldn’t work. Right? I mean the delivery on that needs to be perfect to not be two minutes of dead time. Fortunately, Steve Martin’s delivery IS perfect. This sort of long form building joke occurs more than once in THE JERK, with the other great example being the moment when he leaves the house taking his stuff. Only he keeps finding one more thing he really needs.

But this is a 1979 movie, so I should probably say what it is about for the kids out there, right (says the guy not yet born in 1979)? THE JERK has a very loose plot. Navin R. Johnson (Martin) starts the movie by learning he was the adopted son of an all-black family in Mississippi. The news is shocking to him, it rocks his life. And so he ventures off into the world. Despite being mentally shallow, he lands a job. He invents something which makes him rich. He loses it. He finds love in the person of Marie (Bernadette Peters). He loses it. He gets it back. He loses it. He gets it back. I mean, really, the beats in this film aren’t revolutionary or revelatory. What IS revelatory is Martin himself. He just knocks this movie out of the park. The comic bits don’t stop coming, and this film has at least a half-dozen classic moments. My favorites? Martin getting birthday gifts. Martin getting a ride from Rob Reiner for thirty feet. Martin getting a phone book. Martin being shot at by a sniper, all-the-while thinking that he just has defective oil cans. Martin revealing his soul while in bed with Peters, who is sleeping. Martin with the housing development guys who don’t like a certain type of people. Martin post-wealth. See a pattern? This is a film which lives or dies by Martin, and it undoubtedly lives.

That isn’t to say this is a perfect movie. The story is loose, and sometimes loses its way. I mean, anybody who loves this film would say it is the story of a guy who gets everything, and loses it. It’s about what happens to him. Only, he doesn’t get everything until more than halfway through the movie, and he doesn’t lose it until there are only a few minutes left. The pacing is odd, but so much funny is happening that it really does not matter at all.

Why is this called THE JERK? Sure the popular reading is that the titular JERK is Martin, and that he is (according to Merriam-Webster) either “a : an annoyingly stupid or foolish person,” or, “b : an unlikable person; especially : one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded.” As I watched this movie again, I realized that Martin is neither of these. Noone gets particularly annoyed by him, even if he can be foolish. He’s certainly not unlikable, despite once calling himself a jerk in the last five minutes. For me, the actual JERK is not Martin, but the action of the film. Again, Merriam-Webster defines the verb jerk thusly: “a single quick motion of short duration” and “an involuntary spasmodic muscular movement due to reflex action”. For me, this describes the script perfectly. Nothing happens for too long, nothing develops out of planning. Rather, the film bounces along reflexively, as Martin himself jerks from scenario to scenario. THE JERK of the title, then, is the sudden wealth he receives, occurring in “a single quick motion of short duration”.

Lastly, I have to point out how vital Peters is to this film. Usually in a male-centered comedic vehicle, the female love object is a thing of beauty with little character development. She’s there to look at, to be seen and not heard (think: every Adam Sandler comedy ever made). However, in THE JERK Peters is vital. She sees the sweetness in her new admirer, she sees innocence rather than lunacy. She grounds him in reality, allowing him to pull her away from it. Plus she is funny as hell. My favorite line? “I don’t care about losing all the money. It’s losing all the stuff.” This is not a drama, the acting people are asked to be doing isn’t the same as, say, SCHINDLER’S LIST. But it is just as hard to be very funny as it is to be very sad. Martin and Peters excel at being funny (even if the rest of the cast is forgettable).



The singing and other diegetic music. I don’t know any of these songs, I am not familiar with any of the music. It’s not about recognition. There are a couple of moments in this film with music. The beginning and end are book-ended with the family singing and dancing on the porch. One song from the 50, “Tonight You Be Long to Me”, is sweetly sung by Peters and Martin on the beach. It is such a human moment in an insane film. Loved the choices made musically in this movie.



~ by johnlink00 on August 28, 2012.

One Response to “johnlink ranks THE JERK (1979)”

  1. This was a great one nice choice you beat me to the punch since I was about look at it! I don’t know in a strange sort of way it reminds me of a not so successful Forest Gump (i.e. the not so smart seems to fall backwards into what many consider great things).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: