Friday, March 5, 2010

The Jerk

I had never seen this 1979 Steve Martin classic before yesterday, and after recently completing my viewing of the entire run of "Freaks and Geeks" (in which they reference The Jerk in a few episodes), I figured March Madness was as good a time as any to rectify that situation. While I didn't find it uproariously hilarious, I definitely laughed a lot and can appreciate the movie as a precursor to the money-based comedies of the 1980's.

The Jerk
Director: Carl Reiner
Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters

Before I get too far into this, let me explain what I mean when I say "money-based comedies of the 1980's." Since America was going through a ridiculous societal change at that point thanks in part to the influx of cocaine (profiled, among other places, in the fantastic documentary Cocaine Cowboys), the country became obsessed with money. Movies like Brewster's Millions, Trading Places, and even, to a lesser degree, Night Shift, had plots surrounding the rise (and sometimes fall) of normal people coming into insane amounts of wealth and showing how they deal with it. Outside of the comedy realm, movies like Oliver Stone's Wall Street reiterated the pervasiveness of money into America's subconscious. The Jerk popularized many of these story elements in the form of a film comedy, paving the way for countless movies to take aspects of the plot and repackage them until the story became a cliche.

But before the cliche, Steve Martin and Carl Reiner made cinematic history with Martin's first feature film. I can see why the film is referred to as a classic - not only for its trailblazing sensibilities as far as story goes in the genre, but for the specific manner in which the film accomplishes its mission. Steve Martin essentially plays a man-child (Will Ferrell, eat your heart out) named Navin Johnson, adopted by a black family in Mississippi. While his family sings and dances to music on their front porch, Navin can't seem to keep the beat and feels slightly out of place at various points in his life. One year on his birthday, he discovers he can dance when he hears a jazzy tune on the radio and undergoes a shift in perspective. "If THAT's out there," he shouts, pointing to the music emanating from the radio, "imagine what ELSE is out there!" So Navin leaves his home for the first time, and stumbles into all kinds of adventures after that point. I won't ruin them for you, as most of the fun comes seeing Navin tackle his ridiculous jobs throughout the movie.

One of my favorite scenes had nothing to do with comedy. When Navin meets Marie (Bernadette Peters) and asks her out on a date, they sing a duet (with Steve Martin playing ukulele) of "Tonight You Belong To Me" that I thought was really touching.

The film doesn't shy away from throwing these heartwarming moments in here and there, and I think the movie benefits greatly from that decision; it gives the movie a certain level of heart that is normally lost in other madcap comedies. Navin's innocence automatically makes us root for him, and his naive nature propels the story forward in an organic way.

The writing in this movie was perfect for Martin's comedy style. There were quick-witted lines of dialogue that shined on their own, as well as a solid overarching storyline and situational humor that worked really well for the characters created in this cinematic world.

That's all for now; I wouldn't want to ruin this for anyone else who hasn't seen it yet. I'd definitely recommend checking this out. Even if you don't necessarily care for the humor (hint: if you're a sophisticated female, your chances aren't good), you can probably still appreciate the movie for it's pioneering ways and connect the dots on your own from The Jerk up to the comedies of today. Until next time...

[Two things: This movie was apparently the first film to rent out theaters for a world premeire of a trailer. (I thought that was kind of a fun fact.) And my favorite scene? Probably the convenience store robbery.]

1 comment:

Alan Trehern said...

"sophisticated" and "female" in the same sentence? Bah!