Classic Movie Review – The Jerk (1979)

Always remember these three important rules of life, 3.5 readers:

#1 – Don’t trust Whitey.

#2 – The Lord loves a working man.

#3 – See a doctor and get rid of it.

BQB here with a review of this classic comedy of Steve Martin’s most hilarious film.

NOTE: This is a review for people who have seen the movie. Ergo, if you want no SPOILERS, look away. Go watch then come back.

I saw this movie on a list of films that couldn’t be remade today. I instantly remembered how much it made me laugh back in the day and had to rewatch it again. I’m not sure what that list was talking about because I would argue this is a rare comedy that has stood the test of time, 43 years in fact.

The premise? Steve Martin, in his first major film role, plays Navin Johnson, the white son of African American sharecroppers in Mississippi. He loves his family and they love him, but on one fateful birthday, he, to his shock, discovers that he is white (yes, even though he is well into his thirties.)

Navin’s mother explains that the family adopted him when he was left on their doorstep as a baby and raised him as one of their own. Realizing that he isn’t getting younger, Navin decides he must venture forth from the family homestead and out into the world, seeking to find fame and fortune of his very own.

From there, the flick is a string of skits and gags, all surrounding Navin’s adventure into the great unknown, with cameos by various stars of the day helping or hindering him as the case may be.

Back in the day, Roger Ebert gave this film 2 stars. You can read that review here:

Now, here’s the thing. I admire Ebert because he built a great career doing what I love, namely, watching and picking apart movies. He’s the Mike Tyson of movie critics. So far be it from me to criticize him, but I think he got this one wrong.

As Ebert argues, comedy is subjective (so if he didn’t find it funny then I suppose in his view he wasn’t wrong). He goes on to explain there is funny for the sake of funny and situational funny. He goes on to say sometimes a character wears a funny hat and that’s the joke and sometimes there’s a silly situation that requires the character to wear a funny hat. The latter, according to Ebert, is way funnier.

Thus, to our veteran critic, Martin is all hat and no cattle, just a doofus doing doofusy things. Truly, he did and one might say he’s a pioneer of screwball comedy, making silly faces long before Jim Carrey.

However, what I believe Ebert missed is this film is one great big allegory for the fallout that occurs when youthful (or even not so youthful), naive optimism crashes into cold, hard reality. Forget Dr. Seus’s “Oh, the Places You Will Go!” Every high school graduate should get a copy of The Jerk.

Think about it. The high school grad thinks they’ve got the world by the horns when they head off to college. They think they know everything. Then they encounter the lousy roommate, the demanding professor, the first boss who dresses them down over a mistake. The student loan payments are due and the job interviews are going nowhere. I did all this studying to be a barista? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Compare this with Navin’s mistake filled journey. Navin is full of uninformed assumptions that blow up in his face due to his lack of experience. Navin thinks he’ll easily hitchhike across the USA, only to stand in front of his family’s home all day, well into the night. Navin gets a job at a gas station and thinks he’s hoodwinked a crook by tying said fraudster’s car to a church, only for the ne’er-do-well to take off down the drown dragging half the church, guests at a wedding still inside, behind him.

Navin is overjoyed when he is listed in the phone book, only for a homicidal maniac to pick his name at random and go on a murderous rampage against him. Navin joins a carnival, meets Patty the slovenly, over-sexed motorbiked stuntwoman and assumes he has found a ticket to free, no strings attached sex, only to discover that Patty is so attached she’s willing to commit violence to keep him.

The Navester comes on too strong with love interest Marie and she bolts. He invents the opti-grab grip eyeglass attachment that makes him a billionaire, only to be bankrupted by a lawsuit from irate customers when the product makes them go cross-eyed.

Bottomline – In life, mistakes are guaranteed. You think you won’t make them, but it’s not a matter of if you’ll make them but when. You’ll make assumptions. You’ll make decisions. Your actions will blow up in your face. You can fall apart and give up, or you can learn from your mistakes, vow not to repeat them and do better.

Had Navin not been such a dum-dum, he might have seen many lessons in his mistakes. He should have walked out to a main road to hitchhike, or heck, earned some money to buy a bus ticket. He should have left to crook to the cops. Not all publicity is good. Don’t have sex with someone you don’t want to commit to lest you hurt their feelings. If you sell a product, make sure you test it first.

Yes, wide-eyed, unbridled optism will surely always crash against the hard wall of reality, but all you can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, figure out what you did wrong and not do it again.

In the end, the only lesson Navin learned is home is where the heart is. Sometimes, the greatness we seek is right in our own backyard, coming to us in the form of the people who love us the most, that we love in return. When Navin hits Skid Row, it’s his sharecropper family who find him, clean him up, and bring him back to the place he thrived the most, and an ending credit scene where he dances while his family sings shows us he couldn’t be happier.

Two cringeworthy things that don’t fit today’s modern wokeness. 1 Is when a group of mafiosos use the N word, Navin defends his family’s honor in perhaps the funniest bit of the film when he says, “Sir, you are talking to an n-word!” then magically channels the spirit of a kung-fu warrior as he kicks the asses of all the racist single handed (with the exception of Iron Balls McGinty.)

I would argue this joke gets a pass due to context. Navin loves his family so much. His love for them is the sweetest part of the movie and perhaps the most redeeming quality of an otherwise dimwitted dullard. The n word is only used to pave the way for a bit in which a man who loves his family kung-fus a bunch of racists into thinking twice about saying such nasty slurs. But ok, context is a dead concept when it comes to humor now, so this joke doesn’t hold up.

Second, the family at the end sings “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” a song that references slavery days. All are so happy as the family sings and plays instruments while Navin dances joyously to celebrate his return home for good. In context, one might remember that in slavery times, slaves sang such songs to keep their spirits up when forced against their will to do punishing labor. In 1979, there were no slaves alive but it is possible that Navin’s father, given the time period, might have, as a child, known an old person or two who lived with slavery times or even was a slave. I assume the point of the film was the family is singing a song that was passed down through the generations of their family though yeah, it surely would have been better if the family had sung a happier, less racially charged song.

STATUS: Shelf-worthy. When I was a kid, I just thought Steve Martin was a doofus doing doofy things in this film. As an adult, I see it as a silly growing up tale, teaching young as well as old that whenever they take on a new encounter, they will inevitably make mistakes, fall on their face, have to pick themselves up and try, try again. In the end, the only real losers are those who keep making the same mistake over and over.

I do think this is a rare old comedy that holds up in modern times, save for two scenes that don’t keep with modern woke standards. I’m not saying “give it a pass” but if you consider context and intent, the scenes were meant to show a white man who loves his black family so much, more than anything in the world, and ultimately it is this love that is the best part of him.

Bonus points for a cameo by Jackie Mason who plays Navin’s first boss, the gas station owner. As a kid, I was a fan of all kinds of comedy and wonder if I was the only kid who would repeat Mason’s Yiddishisms. I dare say the man did more to popularize the use of words like oy vey, fakakta, and schmuck than anyone.

Double bonus points for Steve Martin. So many comedians rise up the ladder as anyone does in any profession. They get a small part here or there, many a medium sized role that leads to a big break. Martin had already been a popular SNL host and a comedian who sold out shows in major venues. He also wrote for Smothers Brothers. So by the time this, his first movie, came around, he was a veritable PHD in funny holder. Even though Martin was a Great Bambino level comic by the time this film came along, it is still rare for a comedian to knock their first movie out of the park.

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