This new 40th Anniversary of The Jerk has prompted some predictable pearl-clutching -- no, not from members of the so-called "outrage generation," but from the older, generally male comedy crowd, who are absolutely certain some of the jokes here wouldn't fly today thanks to a "PC Police" (which I doubt they've ever attempted to understand). It's true that there are a couple of zingers here that haven't aged perfectly (and what does in 40 years?), but The Jerk is actually a pretty great example of how even a "sensitive" audience is perfectly capable of parsing where a joke's emphasis is placed, and why.
For instance: the film's opening jokes about Navin's family are written so that Navin is the punchline. When he receives Twinkies and a tuna fish sandwich for his birthday, or he complains that the blues make him feel sad, Navin's square whiteness provides the laugh, one which is further pushed to cartoon absurdity when Navin tries to snap along to the beat of his family's music. Furthermore, King, Ward, Dick Anthony Williams (playing his brother, Taj) are offered as many punchlines as Martin, geting as much of an opportunity be funny as Martin does. Again, not everything has aged perfectly -- a gag about a wedding minister feels lazy, the physical comedy of Peters' Marie resisting a kiss from Navin has some uncomfortable overtones, and a scene where Navin beats up a bunch of racist mobsters is the one bit that feels truly out-of-date -- but the script and Reiner's direction keep the film firmly in the realm of the lighthearted and absurd.
At the heart of The Jerk is Martin's performance as Navin, and later, his chemistry with Bernadette Peters as Marie. The film is a showcase for everything Martin excels at, including the aforementioned wordplay, deadpan one-liners, physical comedy, and even some earnest emotions. At the same time, that work naturally takes up so much of the spotlight that it might be possible to call Peters' performance in the movie underrated, as she matches him almost beat-for-beat with her line readings and comic chops. At one point, she manages to be funny, cry, and play the trumpet all at the same time. The scene where Navin and Marie play "Tonight, You Belong to Me" together on the beach remains a perfect moment: sweetly sincere, legitimately romantic, and absurdly funny (both the introduction of the trumpet and Martin's extended one-liner afterward are comic perfection).
If there is a revelation, watching the movie again, it's that the picture does lose more steam over the course of 94 minutes than I remembered, with clueless innocent Navin providing far funnier material than clueless arrogant Navin. The early material often relies on Martin's keen ear for puns and double-entendres, and watching him trade one-liners with Mason, Adams, and Peters is a ton of fun. The Jerk is Martin at his most goofy and playful, which is probably why seeing Navin become full of himself isn't as entertaining. During this stretch, Peters picks up his slack, nailing a scene where she throws knives at him, and another where she's terrified by the escargot on her plate. Reiner also stages some fun side bits, including one about "early withdrawal penalties" that feels a bit his buddy Mel Brooks might've done, as well as showing up in the movie himself as a dissastified customer of Navin's invention, the Opti-Grab.
The Video and Audio
All that said, the remaster (1.85:1 1080p AVC) looks pretty good, offering a noticeable boost to the vibrancy of the film's color palette, and restoring a nice grain field to the image that was sometimes less evident on Universal's DVDs and Blu-ray editions. There is a bit of print damage visible from time to time, and Shout's compression still has a chunky look to it, but this is a pretty solid polish. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which seems to be identical to the one Universal used on their Blu-ray edition. It sounds fine, but The Jerk isn't a particularly showy movie, so there's not really much to write home about in terms of depth and separation. There is also a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which also sounds adequate (I am unsure as to whether or not this is a true stereo mix or a downmix), and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
The two new centerpiece extras are "A Conversation with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner" (26:35), and "A Conversation with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias" (24:40), both of which are excellent behind-the-scenes peeks at the making of the movie. Reiner, who is 96, struggles a tad when it comes to recalling certain details about the making of the movie, with Martin occasionally interjecting, but the two have some warm and entertaining memories about the experience making the movie, covering the writing and development process, a deleted scene, some behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and what it was like testing the finished film. They also recount a couple of stories about All of Me, which deserves its own special edition Blu-ray (especially given the only DVD edition is full frame and actually has a VHS logo on the package). To be honest, though, the Gottlieb and Elias conversation might be slightly stronger, with both men having particularly sharp recollection of the making of the picture. Highlights include Elias reminiscing about Bernadette Peters' comic instincts, Gottlieb talking about recognizing Steve Martin's increasing fame and contributing to Martin's one-time habit of handing out business cards in lieu of giving autographs, and Elias discussing a meeting with Mike Nichols and Elaine May about making the movie before Reiner came on board. They also have plenty to say on what it's like being associated with a classic (Gottlieb, who also wrote Jaws -- which he refers to as "the fish movie," has two under his belt). Both bonuses are great stuff.
Next, we have two archival DVD supplements, both from an ultra-embarrassing era in Universal home video where they felt they could shoot new material and get away with calling it a bonus. "The Lost Filmstrips of Father Las Vegas De Cordova" (4:20) is a particularly unfunny attempt to extend a bit from the film without Martin's participation -- it's so embarrassing that the disc would almost warrant a higher score for extras without it. "Learn How to Play 'Tonight, You Belong to Me'" (7:03) is far less painful, but not very interesting. It is what it says: "Ukulele Gal" teaches the viewer how to perform the song on the instrument.
The disc wraps up with the original theatrical trailer, plus an "Exhibitor's Trailer" (2:29) -- actually the original teaser trailer, which is a sketch featuring Martin in a ridiculous suit, pretending to talk "inside baseball" to theater owners. Finally, there are some radio spots (3:03), playing over a screen with the new package art on it.
The aforementioned gaffe? There is also a 32-second clip of footage identified as the "teaser trailer" on the extras menu. Viewers might notice that the clip looks extremely clear and sharp for something assembled in 1979, that it features strange transitions (the video frame spins, for example), and it lacks a title card or any sort of text that would clearly identify it as an advertisement. Well, I know what it is: it's the clip reel designed to loop as the video backdrop for the main menu of Universal's 2005 "26th Anniversary Edition" DVD release. Whoops!