Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Carl Reiner|
|Music by||Jack Elliott|
|Cinematography||Victor J. Kemper|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|14 December 1979|
|Box office||$100 million|
The Jerk is a 1979 American comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias. This was Martin's first starring role in a feature film. The film also features Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, and Jackie Mason.
Navin R. Johnson is the white adopted son of black sharecroppers, who grows to adulthood naïvely unaware of his obvious adoption. He stands out in his family not just because of his skin color but because of his utter lack of rhythm when his adopted family plays spirited blues music. One night, he hears the staid Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra song called "Crazy Rhythm" on the radio and his feet spontaneously begin to move with the urge to dance; he sees this as a calling and decides to hitchhike to St. Louis, from where the song was broadcast. On the way, he stops at a motel, where a dog wakes him up by barking at his door. Navin thinks the dog is trying to warn of a fire. He wakes up the other hotel guests to rescue them, telling the dog they will name him "Lifesaver." After everyone realizes it was a false alarm, one of the guests, an angry Asian man suggests not naming the dog "Lifesaver" but rather, "ShitHead." Navin agrees, and refers to the dog by that name throughout the film.
Navin gets a job and room at a gas station owned by Harry Hartounian. He is thrilled to find that he is listed in the local phone book, as his name is "in print" for the first time. Not long after, a gun-wielding lunatic randomly flips through the phone book and picks "Johnson, Navin R." as his next "random victim bastard." As the madman watches through his rifle scope, waiting for a clear shot, Navin fixes the slippery glasses of a customer, Stan Fox, by adding a handle and a nose brake. Fox offers to split the profits 50/50 with Navin if he can market the invention, then departs. Seizing his chance, the crazed sniper shoots but misses. The lunatic chases Navin to a traveling carnival, where Navin hides out, eventually getting a job with SJM Fiesta Shows as a weight guesser. While employed there, Navin meets an intimidating daredevil biker named Patty Bernstein and has a sexual relationship with her, finally realizing what his "special purpose" (his mother's euphemism for his penis) is for. He then meets a woman named Marie and arranges a date with her. Patty confronts them, but Marie knocks her out. While courting, Navin and Marie walk along the beach and sing "Tonight You Belong to Me"; Navin plays the ukulele and Marie the cornet. Navin and Marie fall in love, but Marie reluctantly leaves him because of his lack of financial security. She writes a note and slips out while Navin is in the bath singing a song about "Picking Out A Thermos, For You." He reads her letter (though half-soaked in bath water, ink running and mostly illegible) and attempts to chase after Marie straight from the tub naked, using his dog and another smaller dog to cover up his extremities. He loses Marie, and becomes depressed telling Shithead to leave and find a better master, then changes his mind after the dog immediately tries to run off.
At an emotional and financial low, Navin is soon contacted by Stan Fox with exciting news: his glasses invention, now called the Opti-Grab, is selling big and he is entitled to half of the profits. Now extremely rich, he finds and marries Marie, and they buy an extravagant mansion. Their life becomes one of splendor and non-stop partying. However, Carl Reiner "the motion-picture director" files a class action lawsuit against Navin and claims that the Opti-Grab caused his eyes to be crossed, and that his resulting poor vision caused the death of a stunt driver in the film he was directing. Nearly ten million other people have the same vision complaint (including the judge and jury foreman), and are awarded a total of $10 million in damages. Bankrupt and yet again depressed, he needlessly grabs a number of odds and ends (an ashtray, paddle-ball game, remote control, book of matches, a lamp, a magazine and finally a chair) yells at Marie for looking at him like he was "some kind of a jerk, or something" and walks out, abandoning his dog and Marie. He then trades all the items he walked away with to a hobo for a Thermos (much like the one he described for Marie in his song) and is soon homeless living on the streets. His story now told, he resigns himself to a life of misery and memories of Marie. But to his amazed joy, she suddenly appears, along with Navin's family, and some more good news: having carefully invested the small sums of money Navin sent home throughout the film, they have become wealthy themselves. They pick him up off the street, and he and Marie move back home into the Johnsons' new house -- a bigger, yet nearly identical version of their old, small shack.
The story ends as the entire family dances on the porch and sings "Pick a Bale of Cotton"; Navin dances along, now having gained perfect rhythm.
By 1977, comedian Steve Martin was experiencing wild success. He wished to cross over to a film career, believing it promised more longevity. Basing his film proposal on a line from his act -- "It wasn't always easy for me; I was born a poor black child" -- he fleshed out his ideas into a series of notes he intended to deliver to studios. With confidence in his budding standup career, he imagined it would not be difficult to break into Hollywood. Instead, he found it more difficult than expected. Bill McEuen was acquainted with Paramount Pictures president David Picker, and passed along his notes, which the studio read carefully. It described a series of odd jobs lead character "Steve" would hold in his saga, but Paramount passed on the project.
Picker moved to Universal Studios around this time, and moved the film along with him. Martin was able to pick which director he wanted to work with, and chose Carl Reiner, famous for his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The duo met constantly, and the film's title grew out of their conversations:
Martin wrote the part of "Marie" with Bernadette Peters in mind. He adapted several bits of his standup act to fit within the film, such as a monologue in which he emotionally exits a scene, remarking "I don't need anything," but nevertheless picking up each object he passes on his way out.  In co-writing the script with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, their goal was to provide a laugh on each page of the screenplay.
In shooting the film, Reiner "ran a joyful set", according to Martin, with the cast and crew eating lunch together each day. Martin's favorite moment of the film, as he detailed in his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up, was the scene in which he and Peters sing "Tonight You Belong to Me". Martin felt the moment was touching, and waited in anticipation at the film's premiere screening in St. Louis. Unfortunately, much of the audience left during the scene to buy more popcorn.
An alternate, comic introduction of Marie (Peters) - near the train ride Navin was running at the carnival - was only in the theatrical version and thus edited out in future versions. When her nephew takes off on the train, Navin rescues him, and in returning the boy to Marie, has the bill of his engineer's cap pulled down over his eyes so he cannot see the toy village he (Navin) destroys like a lunatic. This scene might have been edited due to a reference to Godzilla.
Another scene that was cut featured Gailard Sartain as a Texas oil millionaire who tearfully begs Navin for money to replace the cracked, dried-out leather seats on his private jet. Navin grants his request and he gratefully states, "Now I can fly my friends to the Super Bowl like a MAN, and not some damned BUM!"
The film is considered to have been a box office smash for the time, earning over $73 million domestically (making the movie the eighth highest-grossing of 1979) and $100 million worldwide, having been produced on a relatively low budget of $4 million. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 81% "Fresh", based on 36 reviews with an average rating of 6.6/10. The website IGN ranked the film as the 10th top comedy film of all time.
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The New York Times reviewer wrote that The Jerk "is by turns funny, vulgar and backhandedly clever, never more so than when it aspires to absolute stupidity. And Mr. Martin, who began his career with an arrow stuck through his head, has since developed a real genius for playing dumb ... Even when it's crude -- which is quite a lot of the time -- it's not mean-spirited ... Mr. Martin and his co-star, Bernadette Peters, work very sweetly together, even when they sing a duet of 'Tonight You Belong to Me,' carrying sweetness to what could easily have become an intolerable extreme."
The Jerk has been praised as not only one of Martin's best comedic efforts, but also one of the funniest films ever made. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted The Jerk the 48th greatest comedy film of all time. This film is No. 20 on Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies and No. 89 on the American Film Institute list AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs.Premiere magazine voted Steve Martin's performance of Navin Johnson No. 99 on their list, "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time". A BBC poll of more than 250 critics rated the film as the 99th greatest comedy of all time.