Once a Jerk Always a Jerk
Having been abandoned as a baby on the door steps of some poor, black sharecroppers in Mississippi, Navin Johnson (Steve Martin - It's Complicated) has grown up believing that these poor, kindly folk were his own flesh and blood. But having reached adulthood, Navin is surprised to discover that the people he calls kin are not and in fact that he is very different to all of them. Feeling at a loss from this devastating news, he decides that he needs to leave home and experience the real world so that he can find his special purpose in life. Through his journey of discovery into the real world, Navin finds work in a gas station before ending up working in a carnival where he falls for the shows motorbike riding stuntwoman. But through a series of fortunate and funny twists he manages to find wealth through inventing a device called an "Opti-Grab" and meets the real love of his life, Marie Kimble (Bernadette Peters - Annie).
I have been a huge fan of Steve Martin for many years, ever since I first saw the hilarious "The Man with Two Brains", but for the life of me I am not a fan of "The Jerk". Released back in 1979, "The Jerk" was to be Steve Martin's debut film as the leading man and indeed it shows a solid glimpse of the sort of wild and wacky humour which has made him so popular, but for me "The Jerk" just doesn't really work and is more like a series of loosely related gags in a one man show.
This is where all the problems start with "The Jerk" as it does not really have a proper story. Yes we do have the premise of a white child being brought up by a black family, unaware that they are not his own flesh and blood and we do get to witness the life of Navin as he finds his way in the real world. But these are all extremely weak and are not enough to hold the film together, let alone keep the movie moving along at a decent pace, and that leads me onto the second problem. At just 94 minutes "The Jerk" is not overly long but it is so slow, it just doesn't go anywhere, in fact I have seen faster snails than this film.
In reality the film plays out as more a succession of humorous sketches which are tenuously linked together by the weak storyline. I say humorous sketches, and indeed some of them are funny, but sadly they mostly seem very dated and quite stupid compared to modern comedies, some may even say un PC with its strong references to race and disability. It also does not help that all the humour and storyline predominantly revolves around Steve Martin's character which makes the film quite flat and monotonous.
Another huge problem with "The Jerk" is that it plays like the aforementioned one man show than what I would term as a proper movie, purely because the majority of the film revolves around the character of Navin Johnson with everyone else coming across as just screen extras. Steve Martin does a reasonable job of carrying it off, but after about half an hour, this one man show becomes quite tedious. Even the main love interest, naïve Marie Kimble, played by the bubble permed Bernadette Peters, gets very little screen time, which is a crying shame as she plays this sort of character brilliantly. Funnily, Navin's pet dog gets more screen time than some of the more prominent characters which says a lot for this film.
"The Jerk" is directed by Carl Reiner, who also went on to collaborate with Steve Martin on several other films, but is better known these days as Saul Bloom in the recent Ocean's Eleven and Twelve movies. Although I don't rate "The Jerk" that highly and think it has a lot of flaws, I don't put the sole blame on Reiner, as he has made a typical movie for this genre from the late 70s era, in a sense in the same style as "Airplane". I believe that part of the problem comes from the fact that Steve Martin was one of the main contributors to the storyline and it shows up in his dominance in every scene, yes he may be the leading man but the film does have other characters which deserve a lot more screen time.
For a film, which over the year has been heralded as hilarious and one of the best comedies ever made, I have to say I am totally unimpressed. It may have been funny back in its heyday, but watching it now it has dated rather badly unlike other comedies from the same period. For me it is not helped by the fact that it comes over as just a series of loosely related gags and watches likes a one-man show, making it very monotonous. Yes it is very funny in a few places, and is a prime example of early Steve Martin, but for the majority of the film it just doesn't have enough to make you belly laugh or want to watch it through to the end.
What this all boils down to is that although "The Jerk" may hold some form of charm for those who saw and love it back on it's release in the late 70s, I personally would not recommend it for first time viewers or fans of Steve Martin's more modern work as they will be very disappointed.