Comedy, being the subjective beast that it is, pretty much makes criticism entirely redundant. You either find it funny or you don’t. Of course some films are more than just pure comedy, and they actually have something to say, perhaps something political or satirical, something about the human condition, or maybe a romantic story to tell. If you don’t laugh at these films, there may at least still be something that you can take away.
Some films however, are nothing but jokes. They live and die by how much they make you laugh. The Jerk is one such film. It is a ludicrous showcase for the talents of Steve Martin, in his breakout screen role. There’s no real plot or characters to speak of, just a series of set ups for Martin to do his thing, and how much you like it will depend entirely on how much these antics tickle your funny bone.
Martin plays idiot Navin Johnson, who has been brought up by a poor black family, believing himself to be their biological son. When he learns that he was adopted he wails, “you mean I’m gonna stay this colour?”
He leaves home, not to find his real family, but to find his fortune. On his way to achieving his goal, he hitchhikes to St Louis, works at a Texaco garage and becomes the target of a random psychopathic killer with an assault rifle (M. Emmet Walsh). Fleeing this lunatic, he joins a travelling carnival and shacks up with a sexually aggressive stunt biker (Catlin Adams). He then meets his true love (Bernadette Peters) and finds his fortune by inventing the Opti-Grab, a handle that goes on the bridge of glasses.
The fame and wealth are sadly short lived, when it is revealed that Opti-Grab is making people go cross-eyed. He is sued and loses everything.
The Jerk fully embraces its stupidity, never balking from absurdity, crassness or offensiveness. If there’s a joke to be made, The Jerk isn’t afraid to tell it. I would estimate that there is at least one visual or verbal gag for every minute of screen time. As a result it is very erratic, with a lot of jokes landing way off target. But when they land, boy do they land.
Since being released in 1979, the film has become something of a cultural touchstone, finding its way onto many “greatest of all time” lists, and is now widely considered to be one of the most influential and hilarious comedy films ever made.
There is clearly a lot of love for this film. But as I stated at the top of this review, comedy is very subjective, and I can imagine some people sitting through this entire film without so much as raising a smile, never mind laughing. This reviewer however, laughed his ass off.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus