Comedy movies have a knack for going bland after a few years and vanishing from the sight. Sure you can name dozens of comedy titles. But for each one you name, there’s probably 100 more that have been lost in the vaults because TV stations don’t want to run them, studios see no profit in home video releases and people have forgotten them. Doesn’t matter how big the cast or how huge of a box office success they were at the time. Does anyone really want to revisit Donnie and Marie Osmond’s Goin’ Coconuts or Gabe Kaplan’s Fast Break? But when a comedy film remains humorous over the decades, there’s normally a reason. Such is the case with Steve Martin’s The Jerk. What’s the secret for releasing a 40th Anniversary Edition without a sense that the film has faded? Steve Martin refused to play it safe with his tale of the rags to riches to rags saga of Navin R. Johnson. Luckily when the film was released in 1979, there was no Twitter for a protest # and college kids were still pretty bawdy in their humor. He was able to open the film with his classic joke, “I was born a poor black child.” But Martin uses that joke to build up a true sense of family and not mere a point of ridicule.
Navin R. Johnson sense there’s something wrong with him because he doesn’t have the natural rhythm like his darker brothers and sisters as they dance on the porch. His mom (What’s Happening!!‘s Mabel King) finally tells him that he’s really white and they adopted him. He feels completely disoriented by the news. He hears a classical song on the radio that night and syncs with the beat. This leads him to want to strike out to find the land where his people roam. The journey takes a bit of time since Navin is a bit of an idiot. At one point he hitches a ride with Rob Reiner (All in the Family) for a rather short distance. He finally gets to city and immediately strikes up a friendship with a dog at a memorable hotel scene. Later Navin gets a job at a gas station run by Jackie Mason (Caddyshack II). He’s eager to please and constantly sends money back to his family. Things go wrong when he comes up with a scheme to stop car using a stolen credit card. His excitement of finally being listed in a phone book is also cut short when someone picks his name out for a horrible reason. This leads to his new career in the carnival where he runs a guess your age booth. Which leads to his affair with a motorcycle daredevil and eventually meeting the sweet Marie (Bernadette Peters). While he must flee the carnival, Navin soon finds out an invention he made is about to change his world and the checks back to his family get larger. He and Marie do their best to seem sophisticated, but fail in many ways. As quick as fame and fortune found Navin, it vanishes leaving Navin on skid row and recounting his plight.
While that’s a dry account of The Jerk, the jokes are there. There’s a great blend of slapstick and word play from Martin and his cast. The jokes go from the bizarre of cat juggling to freakish items such as drinks with umbrellas. Steve knows how to look smart while being completely oblivious to the reality. He thinks a killer is upset at cans and not truly shooting at him. He even has a fight scene against mobsters when they insult his family. Steve Martin constructed a character that played up to his sense of humor without being the guy in the white suit, banjo and arrow through the head. Director Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show) allows Martin the space to let his character breath as a jerk and a romantic guy – once he discovers his special purpose. The big plus is director of photography Victor J. Kemper giving a bit of grit to frame. Kemper shot The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Dog Day Afternoon and Slap Shot. The image grounds the film so Navin is in a real world and not an over lit fantasy land.
The Jerk feels as jerkish today as it did 40 years ago.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. Victor J. Kemper’s cinematography gets to shine in the higher resolution. The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 so you can here the sounds of the carnival around you. There’s also the original sound mix upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The movie is subtitled.
A Conversation with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner (26:35) has the star and director sit down to discuss the nature of the film. Steve talks about his view of what made him want to go from stand up to movie star. Carl was brought by Steve’s insistence. Steve talks about the worries about acting on screen.
A Conversation with Writers Michael Elias and Carl Gottlieb (24:40) has the two writers that worked on the script with Steve. Gottlieb directed Steve in “The Absent Minded Waiter” short. Carl had just come off working on the script for Jaws. Michael Elias went on to create Head of the Class. The writers worked on different drafts. They both enjoyed working with Steve.
Learn How to Play “Tonight You Belong To Me” (7:04) is instructions how to play the song on a ukulele.
The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova (4:20) doesn’t seem to be outtakes of the original footage. The copyright is 2005 so it seems recreation. It was featured on the 26th anniversary DVD.
Trailers & Radio Spots includes the Teaser (0:33), Exhibitors (2:29)and Theatrical (2:30) trailers. They remind us that Steve Martin is the perfect jerk in cinema history. Steve directly talks to the exhibitors and promises them a boring part in the middle so viewers will run out to get more popcorn. Steve’s book “The Cruel Shoes” is in the office. The Radio Spots (3:03) will make you drive your car to your local mall movie theater to see Steve’s first movie.
Shout! Factory presents The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition. Directed by Carl Reiner. Screenplay by: Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb & Michael Elias. Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, Jackie Mason, Dick O’Neill & Mabel King. Rated: R. Running Time: 94 minutes. Released: December 18, 2018.
Tags: Shout Select, Steve Martin, The Jerk