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The Jerk
1979 - R - 94 Mins.
Director: Carl Reiner
Written By: Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb
Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, M. Emmet Walsh
Review by: John Ulmer
   
Steve Martin had basically gained a burst of fame before starring in Carl Reiner's wacky comedy "The Jerk." Martin was fresh off hosting "Saturday Night Live" a few times, and had made a few albums and stand-up gigs. But "The Jerk" is what established him as an on-screen comedian.

Martin plays a lame-brain fool, who lives with his family on a plantation farm. Only one problem. His family is black, he is white. After coming to facts about his racial status, Martin flees from the scene and heads for the downtown gig. He is suckered out of - and into - many things throughout the film. Not as much of because he is innocent as he is dumb, however. Unlike comedies like "Blast From the Past" where the main character is treated bad and doesn't realize it because he/she is innocent and has no idea what to expect from life, Martin gets treated bad and doesn't realize it because he is stupid, not only because he is innocent.

The Jerk starts out working at a gas station. Some of the funniest scenes occur here. One, is when a madman with a sniper rifle is shooting at Martin and misses. Martin, being The Jerk, thinks the man is purposely shooting at paint cans. He says, "Hey! It's the cans! He must hate the cans! Stay away from the cans!" Another is when he gets a home...living in a bathroom. ("Like it? I LOVE it!") And one that has always gotten my funnybone is when Martin looks in a phone book and sees his name. "I'm a person now!" He yells. This is true, of course. All of us feel like more than just skin after seeing our names printed somewhere. I recall first seeing my name as a reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes. It feels great to have your name written somewhere, because you know that someone, somewhere, saw that name and put it in. Someone read one of my movie reviews. Though Martin's character takes it to a new extreme, it is nevertheless true. When you sign your name on a document, the document becomes active and real. So why should it not be the same with Martin's character? Perhaps while he is a jerk, he is at the same time smart. Nah, he's just stupid.

"The Jerk" carved a place for itself in history. I had really never seen any comedy like it before. "Airplane" was released the same year, and the humor was much the same, as well as the editing (see below), but I saw "The Jerk" first, and it was an odd surprise. The humor is by itself. It is so odd and original that it makes it one of the best. Martin went on to make the less-successful "The Man with Two Brains," also directed by Reiner. The film is much the same, but does not work to the same degree. Too many jokes fall flat. Unlike "The Jerk," where the jokes start to fall flat in the middle and pick up again at the end, "The Man with Two Brains" had its hit-and-misses almost the whole way through. It was a fine comedy, but not great at all.

Steve Martin brings his character to life. He is one of the absolute dumbest, innocent, naive individuals I have ever seen on screen. But what makes him work so well is Martin. Martin behind it all. But the thing is, Martin dissolves himself completely into character. He is so stupid that you can't help but laugh. In "The Naked Gun" (1988) Leslie Nielsen used a dumb character and played him smart, deadpan, serious. Like everything he was saying and doing was normal. Martin does the same, but in a different way. He doesn't play him deadpan and smart. He plays a dumb character dumb, having no idea what he is saying and doing is wrong. And another interesting aspect is that even though Martin disguises himself as The Jerk, we can still see Martin shining through. Martin can play versatile actors (see "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" - 1987), but Martin is still inside. We can see him shining through. That is why Steve Martin is one of my favorite comedians. He can envelop his character, yet at the same time keep the Martin charm. That's why I can usually expect solid laughs from a Martin vehicle.

Director Carl Reiner does a few out-of-place cuts in "The Jerk," just like he did in "The Man with Two Brains," but I think that it worked overall. Part of what makes this movie so funny and goofy is how the editing is so odd. So many scenes are out of place and pay nothing to the film. But like I said, that is what makes it so original and stupid.

The film loses some steam halfway through, and the jokes sometimes fall flat, but overall the comedy is one of the best of its genre. I would say it is Martin's best comedy, but that spot is saved for "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" which co-stars John Candy. THAT movie is Steve Martin's best, and always will be.

Overall, "The Jerk" is one of the most original, wacky, and wild and crazy (Martin reference intended) comedies ever. See it for laughs, plain and simple.

 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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