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The Jerk: 26th Anniversary Edition

When the 1970s finally ended, we assessed the damage and listed the decade's defining iconography. In politics: Watergate, of course. Fashion: bellbottoms and wide lapels. Music: disco. Movies: for a while it was "the New Hollywood," then Jaws and Star Wars came along. As for comedy: Steve Martin. Sure, Richard Pryor personified the new taboo-crashing edginess, but it was Martin's apolitical, aggressively silly stadium concerts that first elevated a standup comedian to the status of a rock star. With appearances on Saturday Night Live and bit parts in other movies also in his pocket, the jump to starring in a feature film came right when it should, in 1979, at the height of Martin mania. Directed by Carl Reiner, The Jerk transferred Martin's cat-juggling, "wild and crazy guy" to the big screen. This hit-or-miss, gags-and-props comedy made Martin a movie star. In 1993 he told Playboy, "It did what I was trying to do at the time. It put my comedy act into a movie. When I look at it now, I think I yelled through the entire movie. But I like it."

And after 26 years it's still hard to dislike this rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a blissfully ignorant imbecile finding love and fortune in the big wide world. Martin stars as Navin Johnson. When told that he was not in fact "born a poor black child," Navin takes to the road wearing a World War II bomber's helmet and goggles. Like Jerry Lewis gumping through a Preston Sturges landscape, Navin finds a job at a gas station (long-time standup comic Jackie Mason plays his boss), invents the "Opti-Grab," and falls into the gunsights of a mad-dog killer (M. Emmet Walsh) who picks his name at random from the phone book. He escapes to a job in a traveling carnival ("For one dollar I'll guess your weight, your height, or your sex"), where his carnal innocence gets snapped like a rubber chicken by a bitchy stunt-riding S&M dom (Catlin Adams). True love, though, comes only through Marie (Bernadette Peters at her most kewpie). But even their love is tested after the Opti-Grab makes Navin a millionaire.

With so many comedies from the Bee Gees era now far past their expiration date, it's a nod to both Martin and Reiner to say that The Jerk still holds up as something better than Jerry Lewis: The Next Generation and as the ancestor of Jim Carrey, Pee Wee Herman, and the Farrelly brothers. The Jerk put the "Duh" in Dumb and Dumber. The whole thing is uneven and slight, but the highlight moments guilty-pleasure us with the sort of stupid-funny that's "LOL" quotable afterward. When Navin, happy as a banjo, sings "I'm picking out a thermos for you," its sticks-in-your-head quotient is second only to "The Girl from Ipanema." And admit it — if you're one of this film's avid fans, we know what you shout every year when the phone book arrives. While it's lightly vulgar (its R-rating barely registers these days), one of The Jerk's preserving virtues is its innate sweetness, which offers a nostalgic contrast to the more recent nouveau asshole mean-spirited crassitude comedies. Navin encounters the world like a kid who pulls a broken decoder ring from a Cracker Jack box and thinks it's a puppy, and if by the end he's still an imbecile, he also has his happy-feet.

For those of us who prefer the more metropolitan, more verbal wit and smarts of Martin's later peak-years comedies (L.A. Story, Roxanne), it's odd to watch Navin Johnson clutch two dogs to his naked ass and groin, then think that this guy will go on to write for The New Yorker. Yet The Jerk was Martin's ticket out of the old shtick. Its modest success afforded him the luxury of letting his style mature from the arrow-through-the-head clown to the wryly urbane intellectual and aesthete, a role that clearly is more authentic on him. He followed up The Jerk not with another nose-glasses gag film, but with startling turns in the somber Depression-era musical Pennies from Heaven. More prolific than anyone in '79 might have predicted, his film career has since included a broadband range of other strong work (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Grand Canyon, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Bowfinger, All of Me, Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner), some banal safe-bet chestnuts (Parenthood, Father of the Bride, Cheaper by the Dozen), image-bending curiosities (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Leap of Faith, Novocaine), and admittedly a handful of stupefyingly bad calls (Mixed Nuts, Bringing Down the House, The Out-of-Towners). And that's when he's not being a playwright, novelist, and world-league collector of American art.

Had The Jerk been a total failure, the rest might not have followed. As an historical marker for the '70s, it's miles behind its great contemporaries such as Apocalypse Now and Manhattan. But then, neither Martin Sheen nor Woody Allen gave us a "He hates these cans!" scene.

*          *          *

This upgrade release from Universal reissues The Jerk with good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and DD 5.1 audio that significantly improves on the previous poor pan-and-scan, mono edition. It all looks clean and vivid, and the newly restored soundtrack is fine, even if the nominal 5.1 treatment hardly matters.

However, for a "26th Anniversary Edition" the disc is a letdown. A commentary track with Martin and Reiner is probably too much to hope for, though neither do we get the deleted or alternate scenes that made their way into earlier TV showings. Besides the theatrical trailer, the only worthy extra is a generous set of click-through production notes. Otherwise we get two new, and depressingly ho-hum, "all new bonus features," neither with Martin: You can "Learn How to Play 'Tonight You Belong to Me'" step-by-step on the ukulele, or watch "The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova" (4 min.), an uninspired riff on the cat-juggling bit that adds Fish Teasing, Plant Abusing, and Pet Dressing. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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