"You don't think this movie's funny?"
"No, I think it's stupid. I mean, come on: how old is this guy? He's got gray hair and he's running around like a five year old."
...and that's when it dawned on me that maybe Cindy Sanders wasn't the girl for me after all.
In fairness to the Cindy Sanderses of this world, The Jerk is about a guy with gray hair running around like a five year old. Heck, that's practically the plot summary right there. Steve Martin takes the lead for the first time as Navin R. Johnson, who was raised a poor black child in the same same Mississip' shanty he still shares with his sprawling family. The thrill of discovering Lawrence Welk-esque champagne music and the gasp-shocking revelation that he's adopted and going to stay that color prompt the naive, borderline-retarded Navin to set out to find his way in the world.
Left with a few nuggets of wisdom from his family -- "Lord loves a workin' man"; "don't trust Whitey"; "see a doctor and get rid of it" -- Navin hits the road and starts to make his way cross-country. It's not too long before he lands his first job and gets a place of his own, which turns out to not be a piss-stained gas station bathroom ("Like it? I love it!"). He gets his first taste of celebrity when he appears in a book read by millions upon millions of people...y'know, the phone book...and like any good quasi-celebrity, that random son of a bitch, typical run-of-the-mill bastard quickly finds himself in the sights of a can-hating sniper. With his dog Shithead in tow, Navin inadvertently becomes a carnie, getting a dollar a pop to guess people's weight, height, or sex, stumbling upon the true meaning of his "special purpose" thanks to an unshaven, finned, heavily-tattooed biker chick. Meanwhile, Marie (Bernadette Peters) gives Navin his first taste of true love, the kind that makes four weeks and three days seem like nine weeks and five days, or one day seem like a week and the second seem like five days, and...I have it written down and can show it to you tomorrow if you wanna see it. ...and since the cover says that this is a rags to riches to rags story, Navin becomes an accidental millionaire many times over -- the kind of pompous bastard with the resources to put an end to the barbarism of cat-juggling -- before losing it all, one dollar and nine cents at a time.
Okay, if you haven't seen The Jerk before, I'm sure that plot summary seems rambling and incoherent, and that's probably 'cause it is. The movie's kinda like that too, basically just an excuse to string together a bunch of small setpieces with a thin, frayed thread of a story. It's funny, though, so who cares? The Jerk is either brilliantly stupid or stupidly brilliant, depending on how you look at it, overflowing with gags that still get a laugh even my eight quadraseptazillionth time through. As ridiculously quotable as the movie is -- to know The Jerk is to quote The Jerk, or at least to belt out that stupidly catchy Thermos song -- it'd be unwatchable if anyone but Steve Martin had taken the lead. That "running around like a five year old" quip I lifted from Freaks and Geeks isn't far off; Martin brings an infectious childlike enthusiasm to The Jerk, and like all too many young kids, Navin is dim-witted, earnest, a bit of a prick, and inexplicably endearing all the same.
I'm not one to use the word 'classic' lightly -- actually, that's a lie: I use the word 'classic' lightly all the time -- but when I say that The Jerk is a bone-uh-fide comedy classic, I mean it. Promise. If it's any consolation, I guarantee that if you don't love The Jerk, you'll dislike it intensely, so at least it'll get a strong reaction one way or the other.
Video: One of just a handful of single-sided, single layer HD DVDs floating around, The Jerk's 1.85:1 high-def image is about what I expected. It's a grainy flick, and although there are a few scattered closeups that are really impressive, crispness and clarity are generally mediocre. It's not particularly sharp and is lacking in fine detail, and it looks like some edge enhancement was tossed on at a few spots to try to compensate. On the upside, the VC-1 compression doesn't buckle under the weight of the film grain, and nicks and specks in the source are light. Pretty thoroughly unremarkable, but the presentation seems fairly reasonable for this sort of movie.
Audio: The Jerk's snagged a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix on HD DVD, and it sounds alright. The track has that thin, flat "hey, I'm a low-ish budget comedy from 1979" sound to it, with a good bit of the slightly muffled dialogue sounding particularly dated. There's not really any heft to the lower frequencies, and although there is some decent ambiance as well as a few discrete effects, the surrounds mostly twiddle their thumbs for an hour and a half. Even if they're not used extensively, the rears do add some appreciated color to the ukelele-accompanied romantic stroll on the beach, Patty's incendiary Evel Knievel-ing at the carnival, and the cars careening around the gas station. Stereo imaging up front is pretty strong by comparison, teeming with directionality and a number of smooth pans, again owing mostly to cars and motorcycles zipping from one side of the screen to the other as well as shots from M. Emmet Walsh's sniper rifle. I've written more about the audio for The Jerk than I probably should've, so I'll say "dated but listenable" and awkwardly trail off.
Universal's also tossed on a 2.0 French dub alongside subtitles in English and French.
Extras: Just the same set of stuff from the 26th anniversary DVD edition, which isn't much for a re-release with "anniversary" bobbing around in the title. It gets bonus points for originality, though, tacking on a lesson on how to play "Tonight You Belong to Me" on the ukelele. There's also four minutes of mock-deleted footage, expanding Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova's grainy, black and white exposé of crueldad a los animales south of the border, only not so much with the funny. Why Universal didn't bother to include some actual deleted scenes, I have no idea. Aside from a washed-out trailer, that's it. All of the extras are full-frame and in standard definition.
Conclusion: Even though Universal was nice enough to ditch the combo disc and drop the sticker price a few bucks from what was originally announced, The Jerk is still a tough sell on HD DVD. With so few extras and unremarkable audio-slash-video quality, you could catch the movie in high-def for free on Universal HD and really not miss a beat, and it's not that compelling an upgrade over a DVD that costs less than half as much. The Jerk is one of my all-time favorite comedies, and it's worth picking up on HD DVD if you haven't seen it before, but a fairly bland release dials down the recommendation a notch or two. Oh well. I guess a 34th anniversary edition probably isn't that far away. Recommended.