The Jerk (1979)

“And that’s the only thing I need is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray… And this paddle game. – The ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need… And this remote control. – The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need… And these matches. – The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control, and the paddle ball… And this lamp. – The ashtray, this paddle game, and the remote control, and the lamp, and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one… I need this. – The paddle game and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches for sure. Well what are you looking at? What do you think I’m some kind of a jerk or something! – And this. That’s all I need.”

‘The Jerk’, directed by Carl Reiner in 1979, is an American comedy starring Steve Martin. Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, a man who is adopted and brought up to believe he’s black. When he comes of age his parents tell him of his true heritage which leads to him embarking on a journey of discovery that involves assassins, circuses and a chance encounter with a man that leads Johnson to invent an attachment for glasses that makes him a millionaire. The humour is entirely derived from Martin’s abstract stand-up routines and if like me you’re not familiar with them then the tone of the film is slightly alienating. I found the central character initially very irritating in the same way that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are in ‘Dumb and Dumber’, but as the movie progressed, Martin won me over. Partially this is due to the character’s ‘Forrest Gump’-like good nature and innocence. Unlike Gump, Johnson’s story doesn’t have that historical sense of scale, but does have a surprisingly moving emotional journey. Highlights of the film are Johnson’s interactions with the cynical and acerbic garage owner played by Jackie Mason and the moment Johnson is dumped by his girlfriend whilst in the bath (leading him to use two dogs to cover his modesty). With this film you can see the inspiration for both the Farrelly brothers approach to idiot-savant characters, and to Will Ferrell’s comic creation Ron Burgundy. It feels like a movie ahead of its time, but paradoxically feels old-fashioned, almost as though it’s caught between two different styles, but perhaps this is the measure of the movies quality.

Would I recommend it? Yes – watch it with ‘Forrest Gump’ for the similarity between the two plots.

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