Universal // 1979 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // May 2nd, 2007
From rags to riches...to rags.
Universal continues to incorporate some admittedly rather odd choices into their HD DVD library. Sure there are quite a few action films sprinkled in, but the habit of throwing in older comedies is a bit curious. So with the older Steve Martin film The Jerk, is it a choice that is well worth the investment to upgrade or buy?
Martin and Carl Gottlieb (Jaws 2) first came up with the story. It serves more to showcase Martin's talent as a stand-up at the time, but in the film, Martin plays Navin Johnson, who grows up as part of a poor black family in Mississippi. Except his lack of rhythm, along with being left at the family's door, sets him apart from the rest. He decides to head out and see the rest of the world, or at least St. Louis. He works for Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason, Caddyshack II) at a gas station, but manages to develop a product to prevent eyeglasses from slipping off the nose of their wearer. He makes a bunch of money, but happiness couldn't last forever, right?
Back in the day, Steve Martin set a precedent for stand-up comic success that few people have been able to repeat. His comedy albums were selling left and right and winning all kinds of awards, he played arenas, which, for a comic in the late '70s, was virtually unheard of. He put out a book that was hilarious (Cruel Shoes) that I picked up years ago at a used bookstore and read cover to cover habitually. The Jerk was a film that I couldn't wait to see as a kid and I enjoyed it when I was younger.
I don't know at what point within the last few years I soured on the film. I think that with the way Martin has allowed his career to evolve is the prime cause for my disillusionment. In fact, the best way I can probably describe it is that remember when everyone loved Nirvana? And without a doubt, they had the talent and charisma to prove it. And now, the music, whose front man proudly touted around as being anti-establishment, appears predominantly on video games, including Guitar Hero II, which is my latest guilty and addictive pleasure. The point is what was yesterday's cool is not today's corporate sellout, in one fashion or another.
Yet when it comes to looking at The Jerk again, it's less of a Rocky Horror comedy picture and more of a formulaic film designed to prop up its star. The sight of seeing some older comic figures like Mason, Carl Reiner (who also directed the film), Bill Macy (who plays Navin's inventor advocate Stan) and M. Emmet Walsh, who plays the madman that takes out his anger on the world on the oil cans of the gas station, may be reassuring, but the casting choices are safe ones that dilute the effectiveness of Martin's comedy, which was thoughtful, creative and most of all, funny. With Martin's female lead, Bernadette Peters (who I've always thought of as a poor woman's Madeline Kahn) holds her own to some degree, but it's that babydoll inflection when she talks that diminishes any type of resonance her performance might offer.
As for the high definition version of this film, the 1080p VC-1 transfer doesn't really result in a noticeable upgrade from the standard definition. Nothing here really exhibits a lot of scenic depth, and the film grain is a lot more prevalent than actual picture clarity. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack isn't much better, and considering it's in the pre-stereo days, there's not really anything to get concerned about. The only extras are a short film that's hyped as a continuation of a film that plays in the feature, a ukulele tutorial, and a trailer.
There are some moments where the laughs are pretty good, because there's a wacky little darkness behind some of Martin's jokes that remind me of years past, when the guy was the funniest one on the planet, or even before he decided to make Shopgirl. I just wish I experienced more of these laughs during the film.
This special edition of a cult classic isn't worth picking up as it is because the extras are paltry, and if you want to get it in HD, there's no discernible difference in quality. If you've got the standard one, keep it and don't sink additional money in this waste of time. Catch it on the Universal HD channel and record it if it's that important to you.
Universal is found guilty, ordered to pay $10 million $1.09 at a time, and given a lifetime of shinola. The court may not have agreed with the film, but neglecting the public is an entirely different issue.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Tonight You Belong To Me:" Learn How to Play This Classic Tune on the Ukulele
* The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova
* Official Steve Martin Site