Simply put: You won't find a bigger Steve Martin fan than yours truly. Honestly. You're talking to a geek who'd dance around the living room in his pajamas to Martin's "King Tut" novelty tune and memorize entire blocks of material from the "Let's Get Small" album. (Back off, I was 12.) I'd force my sister to watch The Muppet Movie just to see Steve Martin's annoyed-waiter cameo before popping in my well-worn VHS copy of The Jerk that I'd recorded from the ABC Movie of the Week. When the guy popped up on SNL or Johnny Carson, I'd have that VCR at the ready, and every new Steve Martin flick was something eagerly anticipated in my household.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Lonely Guy, The Man with Two Brains, All of Me, Roxanne ... I dragged friends and family members to each and every one. And don't even get me started on the immortal dual-cameo battle royale between Steve Martin and Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors. I was in comedy nirvana.
There were tons of comic actors that I loved and enjoyed (I knelt at the altar of Murray, Chase, Carlin, Belushi, and Aykroyd), but Steve Martin was the best of the bunch. As I got a bit older, Steve's material seemed to get a little ... cuddlier, but for the most part he's been a reliable pal all these years. And even today, Martin's a consistently entertaining performer -- even if he is currently wasting his talents on silly little kiddie flicks.
But anyway, I unloaded all that pointless personal blather so I could tell you this: I love The Jerk. I love it so much, in fact, that I'm completely willing to forgive its numerous flaws as a movie -- solely because it works as such an excellent vehicle for Steve Martin's frequently bizarre sense of humor.
In truth, The Jerk has not much skin on its bones; essentially a skimpy framework on which to hang the comedian's unique talents, The Jerk is a somewhat aimless A to B to C road movie without much in the actual "plot" department. So while it's an extremely episodic little movie, that's a malady easily forgiven -- simply because the episodes are so damn funny.
Martin plays Navin Johnson, a clueless white dolt raised in a poor black household. Navin's so dumb that he doesn't even realize the difference between black and white (natch), but one night he's inspired (by easy-listening music) to hit the road and seek out his "special purpose."
And the rest of the flick is basically a series of barely-connected mini-adventures: Navin gets a job at a gas station, earns his first citation in the local phone book, and somehow ends up the target of a raving, gun-happy lunatic. From there Navin lands a job at a carnival, accidentally snags a nasty new girlfriend, willingly woos a lovely young lass ... and eventually becomes a multi-millionaire without even trying.
Obviously it's all very silly, and yet it still works. Clearly The Jerk was created solely to showcase Steve Martin's rather distinctive comedic talents, and the movie does precisely that -- and does it exceedingly well. Compare The Jerk to Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura, Will Ferrell's Elf, or Paul Reubens' Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: Scantily-plotted comedic vehicles that are tailor-made for a specific comedian's special schtick.
I've seen The Jerk movie at least twenty times over the years, and several of Navin's specific idiocies still make me giggle like a half-wit:
...his casual proclamation that a rabid sniper with terrible aim "hates these cans!"
...his reaction to his biker girlfriend's living quarters: "You know, you can tell so much about a person from the way they live. Just looking around here I can tell ... you're a genuinely dirty person."
...after giving his new sweetheart a handful of broken flower stems: "Ha! That guy gypped me; he put daisy stems on my roses!"
...while writing checks after being sued by thousands of people in a class action law suit: "One dollar and nine cents!"
And that whole lengthy sequence of mock-tragedy, in which Navin leaves his mansion a broken man, stopping frequently to grab items of meaningless crap to take with him. Brilliant schtick, Steve. Honestly.
And it's not just the simple yuks that sell the movie. Martin's performance is a pretty difficult balance; if Navin is too stupid then be becomes a tiresome presence, but the actor brings a wide-eyed charming goofiness to the role that makes him entirely likable. (And Martin's at his best once Navin gets a little cocky and arrogant -- because the undeniable stupidity is still there beneath the surface.)
And while The Jerk is in all ways Steve Martin's spotlight show, that's not to say there aren't several supporting players who help the guy along. The porcelain-faced Bernadette Peters strikes a perfect balance between silly and sweet (and she even steals a few solid laughs of her own!), while familiar faces like Jackie Mason, M. Emmet Walsh, and Bill Macy shovel a few extra chuckles into the stew.
Summing up: If you dig the old-fashioned Steve Martin, this is a classic comedy of the highest caliber. The guy's at the top of his goofiest game in The Jerk, and the film did precisely what it was supposed to do: Please the fans, turn a tidy profit, and vault Mr. Martin into a career full of (generally) rock-solid comedy flicks. And if you're too young to know this version of Steve Martin, then The Jerk will do one of two things: Convert you into a big fan, or annoy you endlessly. But I'm guessing it'll do the former.
OK, I love the movie and I love Steve Martin. Great. But I've got a few bones to pick with the fine folks over at Universal Home Video.
For the longest time, the only way to own The Jerk on DVD was by way of a rather atrocious fullscreen, bare-bones release. As I'm a staunch supporter of what we call Original Aspect Ratio, I refused to purchase that particular DVD. Happily, that problem has been rectified on this, the "26th Anniversary Edition" release.
Video: It's a B+ transfer delivered in a very welcome Widescreen (1.85:1) Anamorphic aspect ratio. Picture quality is about as strong as can be expected, I suppose, and I'm very grateful for the long-overdue OAR presentation. Well done, Uni.
Audio: The "completely restored" Dolby Digital 5.1 audio treatment is also quite solid. I cannot compare it to the previous DVD, as I've never seen it, but let's just say the aural presentation is a whole lot better than what I got on that dusty old VHS tape!
Extras: And now we get to some nitpicks:
When I see a DVD that houses a very popular old comedy and comes in a case with the words "26th Anniversary Edition" emblazoned across the top, well, I expect some supplemental material of some actual worth. For a movie that made over 73 million bucks (and that's in 1979 dollars), earned a spot on the AFI Top 100 Comedies of All-Time, and has long since proven itself a fan favorite of the highest degree -- a Special Edition this skimpy is almost unforgivable.
No retrospective featurettes or cast & crew interviews. No sort of commentary track or behind-the-scenes material. All you're getting in the extras department is this: an outrageously pointless ukulele lesson, a 4-minute scene of deleted "Father Carlos" footage, the original theatrical trailer, and some text production notes. The best goodie in the bag is the theatrical trailer. Seriously.
I hate to sound ungrateful, particularly because I'm just too relieved to finally own this movie in Widescreen, but The Jerk is one of the least impressive "Anniversary Editions" I've ever seen. And what makes it even more annoying is that there are several notable scenes that are included in the cable version of The Jerk. Any of you fans remember the "Tilt-a-Whirl" sequence or the "cracked leather jet seats" conversation? Nowhere to be found on this DVD, annoyingly enough, and those are precisely the sort of things that should be included on a Special Edition DVD.
Bottom line: The movie's what matters. I can gripe about the paltry supplemental materials (and so will you), but the movie looks great and sounds even better, finally delivered to my doorstep in its original Widescreen format and chock full of great, goofy gags.
Extras-wise, I guess we'll have to keep our fingers crossed for the "52nd Anniversary Edition," Jerkfans.