The Jerk (Carl Reiner, 1979)

Steve Martin breaks a lance for jerks everywhere

Steve Martin’s comedy film debut is a madhouse of oddball characters, barely threaded situations and the absurd, non-sequitur humor he drew scores of people to his shows with.

In the movie, Martin starts out as a hobo lying a dumpster. It was never easy for Navin R. Johnson, he explains, he was born a poor black child. We cut to the start of his life’s story, the first of many outrageous scenarios. His – indeed – blues-singing, black family informs Navin he’s been adopted and off he goes on a trip to make something of himself. Along the way he finds a job at a gas station, enrolls with a carnival, gets caught up in an unfortunate love triangle and indeed strikes it rich with an unbelievable invention.

The story is of little consequence. I felt the film wasn't very interested in what it had to tell or its own characters and as a consequence, neither was I. The whole thing falls back on Martin’s ability to turn any event into a festival of prop-laden craziness. His jerk is possibly the dumbest creature alive, but finds fame and fortune fortuitously. The comedy works in many moments when the situation escalates. Navin finds himself the target of a sniper with a lousy aim and believes him to be out for the cans he keeps shooting. “He hates these cans!” Navin shouts in shock. “Stay away from these cans!”

Comedy is a fickle thing. It can age very quickly and seem outdated within a decade. What was once daring and groundbreaking, like the standup of George Carlin or Bill Hicks, can seem regrettably tame today. To its credit, The Jerk still elicits many chuckles, yet I found my attention often drifting away. Whether that was because the material has aged or was never really amazing to begin with I’ll leave up to you. This film prefigures many of the later stoner comedies like Bill and Ted and Harold & Kumar. In the end it felt as if I myself was the butt of the joke, and Steve Martin had been secretly laughing at me all the way. What a jerk.

Roderick Leeuwenhart