Universal // 1979 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // August 23rd, 2005
I was born a poor black child...
In 1979, Steve Martin (star of the upcoming The Pink Panther) was known as a "wild and crazy guy." The Jerk marked the stand-up comic's film debut. Fans of the film have been clamoring for a proper DVD release, one that would rectify years of seeing fullscreen prints and severely edited TV cuts of the movie. Will they be happy with The Jerk -- 26th Anniversary Edition? Or will 10 million fans create a class action lawsuit to win $1.09 a piece for making their eyes cross?
The Jerk is the story of Navin Johnson (Martin). Baby Navin appeared one day on the doorstep of a poor family of black sharecroppers in Mississippi, who decided to raise him as their own, even if he was white. On his birthday, the now-adult Navin realizes he is different, and decides to set out on the road to find his "special purpose" in life. Along the way he works and lives in a gas station, runs off with a carnival, falls for a motorcycle-driving stuntwoman, avoids being killed by a maniac, invents the "Opti-Grab," which makes him rich, finds a dog he intends to call "Lifesaver," but who earns another less flattering name, and meets the love of his life, Marie (Bernadette Peters, Heartbeeps). Basically, it's all just set-ups for funny jokes straight out of Martin's stand-up and Saturday Night Live routines, hung in a rags-to-riches-to-rags-story frame.
Steve Martin started in films relatively late in his career. He was first a prominent stand-up comic who started working in the late '60s. He became a near-regular host of Saturday Night Live, and worked as a staff writer for the Smothers Brothers' variety show. He knew Carl Reiner's son, Rob (Meathead in All in the Family), through their common efforts working on comedy writing for television. Martin began to develop a film script for himself with the help of a screenwriting partner, Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Jaws 2, and -- God help us -- Jaws 3-D). In the script, they mainly riffed off of Steve's stand-up routines to come up with the tale of a naive journeyman who hit it big and lost it all. The natural choice to direct was family friend Carl Reiner (Oh God!), who would go on to work with Martin in other movies like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and All of Me. They made a terrific team to make the goofball comedy, which was originally called Easy Money, but was subsequently renamed The Jerk. Reiner and Martin shot the movie in about 35 days, and came in under-budget and ahead of schedule. Because of a gas crisis, the two men rode to work together every day, planning out jokes and scenes along the way.
The cast of supporting players was quite a hodgepodge of stage and screen veterans. Bernadette Peters (known mainly for her stage career at that time) would play Navin's true love Marie. She and Martin got along so well they decided to do Pennies From Heaven together. Stand-up legend Jackie Mason turns in a part as Navin's first boss in the gas station. Mabel King had just appeared in the movie version of The Wiz as Evillene, and was cast as Navin's mother. Serious actress Catlin Adams (The Jazz Singer) appears as the Jewish motorcycle mama, Patty Bernstein. Rob Reiner gets a cameo as the first guy to pick up Navin as he hitchhikes to St. Louis. Then there was the dog. Rumor has it the dog actually hated Steve Martin with a passion, and created a lot of tension on the set. The supporting cast was strong and able, but this was clearly Steve Martin's moment to shine.
The Jerk is a silly and obnoxious comedy, filled with lots of sight gags and trademark Steve Martin literalism. It stands up as a testament of the real Steve Martin, captured on film at a time when he was a charismatic stand-up comic and not really a mature film actor. It feels fast and loose; almost as if it were improvised on the spot. The movie relies more on gags than elaborately set-up jokes based on logic. It's a peculiar mix of physical humor and sly optimism -- some people find this hysterical, while others don't quite "get it." You gotta remember this is a guy who made a fortune just showing up in bunny ears or with an arrow stuck through his head on a wire. It stands up well through several viewings, since most of the details can be missed easily on a first pass.
The first release of The Jerk on DVD was on a fullscreen edition with no extras. Now we get this package, labeled The Jerk -- The 26th Anniversary Edition, which promises anamorphic widescreen, a surround mix, and bonus features. It looked like Universal was about to right some serious wrongs, but "EXCUUUUSSSE MEEE!"...they sure didn't. First up, the much touted 5.1 sound mix -- which has an audible hiss, muted dialogue, and never used my rear speakers or subwoofer. It's basically stereo labeled as surround (finally proof that a "stereo surround" mix exists!). The visual transfer fares better -- it is in the correct aspect, and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. It's solid for a movie this old, even though it is a little soft.
But you wanna know the real insult? It's the extras. Basically, there are none. At least not any of value, substance, or even connection to the movie. First up we have ukulele lessons from Janet Klein (billing herself as "The Ukulele Gal"), teaching us how to play "Tonight You Belong to Me." It's long, tedious, and frankly pointless, considering most houses in America do not have ukuleles lying around. Then we have what is billed as The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova, a man seen showing Navin the horrors of "cat juggling" in the film proper. What we see in this feature is a poor impersonator doing gags on video that are lame enough to make you want to hurl live kittens at the screen (this coming from a cat lover and supporter of PETA -- so you know it's bad). I know the difference between shit and shinola, and these extras are definitely the former.
In television cuts of the film, there are tons of alternate takes and extended gags. I know they could have at least gotten those scenes together for a deleted scenes feature. And no commentary, no retrospective interviews, not even some mildly amusing EPK material? No footage from when Steve Martin televised the premiere of the movie's trailer? This is the laziest effort to create a special edition I have ever seen. (Okay, I exaggerate...but you get the point.)
Buy The Jerk if you love Steve Martin, or if his humor is your style. Just don't expect much from that exciting "26th Anniversary" label. This is basically just the film with a simple stereo mixed labeled as 5.1, and our usual "it came from the '70s" soft transfer. The best thing I can say is it's in the original aspect ratio. Great movie, but a pisser of a DVD release.
If I find the execs at Universal who put this package together they better run, because I am throwing dog poopy on their shoes when I see them. They are guilty of using snappy marketing to fool me into thinking this was a special edition. I thought I would get some insight into my special purpose, but noooooo!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Learn How to Play "Tonight You Belong To Me" on the Ukulele
* The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova
* Production Notes
* Original Trailer
* Janet Klein "Ukulele Gal" Site