Friday, February 28, 2014

The Jerk Review

Having the weird sense of humor that I do, I admit I don't always enjoy comedies. The Jerk (1979) is considered one of the top 100 funniest movies according to the American Film Institute, and I still hear references to it now and then. I finally got around to watching it the other day, and I did think parts of it was funny.
Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) begins his story by telling us "I was born a poor black child." Raised by a black family in Mississippi he learns the shocking truth that he was adopted. Never having the rhythm for music that his family has, he one evening finds himself instinctively tapping his feet to an easy listening tune on the radio instead of a low-down blues. donning a World War II bomber helmet and goggles, Navin takes to the road to start a new life in St. Louis. Upon arriving, a gas station owner, Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason) gives Navin his first break and hires him to pump gas. One day at the station Navin has a brainstorm, concocting an invention called "The Opti-Grab," A combination handle and nose-brace for eyeglasses. Navin runs into trouble when a crazed gunman (M. Emmet Walsh) picks out his name at random from the telephone book and tries to kill him. Navin escapes to a traveling carnival, where he wrangles a job as the "guess-your-weight" man. At the carnival, he begins dating the stunt driver and S&M enthusiast Patty Bernstein (Catlin Adams). But Navin meets the beautiful Marie (Bernadette Peters) and he quickly falls in love. In the meantime, the "Opti-grab" has taken off and soon Navin is a millionaire.
Comedies are tricky to review. What people find funny is subjective and differs greatly from person to person. Even I admit I have a weird sense of humor. I think there are basically two types of comedy; you either laugh at something that's funny because it looks silly (i.e. wearing WWII bomber helmet and goggles to hitchhike to St. Louis) or you laugh at something for the underlying reason that such antics are happening. Sure, it's kind of funny but if the punch line is simply "he looks silly wearing that hat" the humor is kind of weak. The why isn't addressed; The Jerk just wants us to laugh at the gags at the most basic level. By wearing a silly hat no plot point is made and nothing is said about the character. It's just silliness for the sake of silliness. Analyzing humor won't get anyone anywhere, though. Humor is very subjective and if I laugh at something and you don't, no amount of my logic is going to convince you that it was funny. That said, I laughed a few times at the comical antics; fewer than I'm sure the movie would have liked from its audience. It averages out to be an "okay" comedy in my book.
The Jerk is based on Steve Martin's stand-up comedy routines. He had made a few cameos in movies up to this point, but The Jerk was his first starring film role. Navin is supposed to be an 18-year-old boy venturing out to make his way in the world. Part of the irony is that he's still played by Steve Martin who was about 37 at the time. I'm starting to doubt if that man ever had hair any color other than white. Martin brings a very energetic vibe to his character; he plays a very innocent, naive, and often times downright stupid character with unfailing optimism. Although he didn't actually write the script, the character is a creation of Martin's and no one else could have played this role with such enthusiasm.
Back in 1984, a crazy new movie rating was released to indicate a movie that was above PG, but not quite as bad as R. The first movie to be released with the PG-13 rating was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Having said that, The Jerk is rated R, but today its content would have been earned a PG-13 rating, that rating simply didn't exist back in 1979. There's is some profanity, alcohol and marijuana use, and partial nudity in one scene when Nevin is trying to cover himself up with his pet dog. There is implied sex, but it's never shown on screen. There is also a scene with a nude painting in the background.  None of the content is graphic or suggestive enough in my opinion to have earned it an R rating today. Interpret that how you will, I just think it's interesting how film content and movie ratings have changed over the years.
The Jerk is a funny movie. It didn't have me falling out of my seat laughing, but it got me to chuckle a few times. It was fun seeing Steve Martin in one of his earliest roles. The story is pretty random and goes all over the place. The characters are funny, but shallow. It averages out to be an "okay" comedy movie. I'm glad I saw it because it's a classic worthy of a few laughs. It's probably not something I would go out of my way to see a second time. Like I said, it really wants you laugh at the gags at their most basic level. I recommend it only if you really like comedies, are a fan or Steve Martin, or appreciate classic movies.

What's your favorite Steve Martin role? Comment below and tell me why!

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