Sunday, 16 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Jerk" (1979)

Remember when Steve Martin movies were properly funny, rather than withering tests of endurance; when he appeared to be fully engaged with the business of making grown-ups laugh, rather than simply trying to steal off with nine-year-olds' pocket money in order to fund his private art collection? The comedian's later movies would take the American dream several times more seriously than anyone but the least discerning of pre-teens could tolerate. The Jerk, on the other hand, holds up as Candide rewritten by the staff of MAD magazine, charting the rise and fall (and rise again) of Navin Johnson, "born a poor black child" after his actual parents abandon him on the front porch of a Mississippi shack. The quintessential American naif, Johnson becomes a millionaire after he invents a device that makes it easier to remove one's spectacles, but is destined to be brought low by his own director - this being Carl Reiner, cast in the once-in-a-lifetime role of "Carl Reiner The Celebrity".

Despite trace evidence of a tattiness that suggests a film rushed into production to exploit the popularity of its hot-potato star, it's less sketchy than you might remember, operating chiefly on the same zingy, how-did-we-get-here? logic that subsequently underpinned many of the best Simpsons episodes. A typically inspired stretch starts with Navin's delight at being included in the phone book ("I'm somebody!"), builds with the arrival of mad sniper M. Emmet Walsh, and concludes with Navin being pursued by the latter into a fairground where he will be deflowered by a trick motorcyclist. Throughout, Martin tempers his wild-and-crazy-guy stage persona - which could well have grown wearisome over the longer haul - with an optimism and sweetness (strumming a banjo along a beach to woo cosmetologist Bernadette Peters) which seems doubly touching in the face of a world perpetually indifferent to the fortunes of a Navin Johnson. Forrest Gump would later play similar material straight, without much in the way of satire or absurdity; The Jerk manages all that, plus elements of tragedy and social comment, and as fondly remembered Seventies studio comedies go, it's far sharper in the points it raises about race and privilege in America than the altogether scattershot Blazing Saddles. The bonus is that it's frequently hilarious: "Hey mister, don't call that dog Lifesaver. Call him... Shithead."

The Jerk is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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