M. Emmet Walsh
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
The Jerk February 4, 2019
he Jerk, from 1979, is a movie about a man who once had the abstracted all but now has just three things: some "friends," a dirtied thermos, and a stoop to sit on. How did he — a previously affluent buffoon named Navin (Steve Martin) — get to this point, in the “fall” part of the classic rise-and-fall drama?
The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner, has not been made in the style of an
Arthur Miller heartbreaker, rest assured. Instead, it’s a comic antithesis of the textbook tragedy — an absurd movie about an imbecile of a white guy “born a poor black child” (i.e. adopted by a lower-class black family) who rises from his impoverished upbringing after inventing no-slip glasses (i.e. a pair of pre-Warby Parkers with a cute handle). Navin inevitably loses it all, but not for stereotypical reasons like avarice or a dark past catching up with him. His downfall, rather, arrives when it turns out that his invention leaves its buyers eventually dizzy and cross-eyed.
The Jerk, which made for the then-rising Martin’s first leading role in a feature-length film, is a scion of the comedian’s standup. It's an energetic collection of surrealist sight gags and non-sequiturs. Scattered and frenetic as the film’s components are, they add up, like Martin’s on-stage routines, to make a nonsensical comedy whose nonsensicality happens to make some sense after a while. As long as the audience is laughing, Reiner and co. figure, who really cares about logic anyway?
Part of the reason I like The Jerk so much has to do with the way it so gleefully refuses to cater to comic formalities. Sure a lot of canonical comedies employ a similar style of scatterbrained comedy. But The Jerk is riskier, more unapologetically idiosyncratic. The stranger the twist in the plot, and the more out of place the one-liner, the better.
Why not have the woman who takes Navin’s virginity be a sexually aggressive motorcyclist who gets the names of her conquests tatted on her ass? Why not have a side character who finds Navin randomly in the phone book and decides that it’s his movie-long mission to try to snipe him? Why not have Martin lick love interest Bernadette Peters’ face after he compliments the glow of her skin? Why not have Carl Reiner cameo as himself as the person who first angrily sues Navin for the faultiness of his no-slip glasses? Why not have Navin’s idea of luxury make Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace look like minimalism in situ by comparison?
The Jerk’s “why-not” tactics get it far. You rarely see comedies go so much out of their way to pander to the antic without the attempts feeling labored. I laughed lots, and noisily. Claims that The Jerk is more gag-fest than comedy are, at their root, true. Navin is less a person and more a hotbed of tragic-hero clichés covered in Silly String and wet-willy spit. Set-up-followed-by-punchline structuring isn’t quite as normal as, say, us being thrust into set-ups and patiently finding out if there actually is a punchline. (Usually there isn’t — just another cheery gag.) But if I’m having a good time at the gag party, why discount the largely empty-headed jesting? Near-constant goofiness is not a setback in The Jerk. Martin and his similarly committed co-stars make for a pack of harlequins with whom I happen to enjoy spending 95 foaming-at-the-mouth minutes. A-