When it comes to comedy classics, The Jerk almost immediately comes to mind. In 1979, Steve Martin starred in the role that skyrocketed his career.
After growing up with a poor, black family, Navin Johnson (Martin) is ready to hit the road and start his life. After much unsuccessful hitchhiking, he finally bums a ride to St. Louis. Here begins his ridiculous road to fame, fortune and failure.
It’s no surprise that Martin is so easily remembered for this film–it’s pretty much his. With such little on Martin’s resume, Carl Reiner went big and made the film all about Martin. It’s a move that could have gone totally wrong. Obviously, things worked out differently.
However, the film doesn’t rely on Martin’s comedic abilities so much as his goofiness. He smiles a lot, he sings funny songs and he dances like a fool. But that doesn’t mean you won’t laugh. Martin’s goofiness is best brought out in scenes where his character takes things too literally, particularly when he’s shot at at the gas station and when he learns that his job at the fair is about taking customers’ money in return for junk, making his new sales lure: “Take a chance and win some crap!”
What works best in this film is Navin and Marie (Bernadette Peters) as a nutty couple. She’s pouty, child-like and doe-eyed. He’s dorky, obnoxious and oblivious. Clearly, the perfect couple. Together they relish in riches, boogieing with strangers in their home disco, doling out dollars to the mafia and practicing their dagger-throwing. Really, the film could have been entirely about their shenanigans. (Tangent: their voices also sound truly blissful together in a mid-film duet while Martin strums on a ukulele.)
It’s a very funny film. The problem is, it’s just a very funny film. It’s not hilarious and it’s not a re-watcher. Once you’ve seen it and laughed, it’s hard to laugh again. You already know the one-liners and the silliness gets tiresome.
With such quick-shot comedy, the plot is also very flimsy. You really have no idea where it’s going next and it really doesn’t matter where it’s been. It’s like riding a roller coaster blindfolded, which can be fun and unexpected but also unsettling.
It’s a film that probably wouldn’t survive today. The biggest reason, it’s fairly clean comedy. Sure, his dog’s name is Shithead, he talks about his girlfriend’s ass and he has a lot of sex but it’s just not enough for the modern humid climate. That’s not to say that a clean comedy wouldn’t make it today but a film that relies so heavily on mindless humour needs some romping in the mud these days (well, at least the movie-makers seem to think so, judging by the comedy fare we get). That said, there are still those with classic senses of humour that could take to it and love it.
If you like dorky dance moves, you should see it. If you like goofy grins, you should see it. If you like Martin, you should definitely see it–but maybe just once.