By the late 1970s, thanks to frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, SNL, and a series of massive-selling comedy albums, Steve Martin was already a superstar in America. A transition into movies was inevitable and, following small parts in the likes of The Muppet Movie, 1979’s The Jerk finally gave Martin his first lead role, and he revelled in it.
From the opening, where Martin informs us that he was born a poor black child (his reaction when he’s informed when he’s adopted: “You mean I’m going to stay this colour?”) The Jerk sets out its stall early. This is Martin at his absolute silliest, and therefore most brilliant.
At no point in the proceedings do things get any more sensible. Inspired by hearing jazz for the first time, he decides to leave his family and sets out to see the world…and promptly ends up settling down to work in the first place he stops: a gas station. From there on he embarks on a series of adventures, acquiring a dog which he christens ‘Shithead’; surviving assassination attempts; demolishing churches; working in a carnival; making and losing a fortune; and even finding true love. Truth be told, the plot is fairly inconsequential. It’s just an excuse to give Martin free reign to cause chaos, and he does so magnificently.
Martin’s anarchic humour has always been tempered with a sweet, romantic side, most notably evident in the brilliant Roxanne. Here he gives himself a rather tender love story, where his character romances both Bernadette Peters and (in this instance we’re using the word “romance” in its loosest possible sense) a carnival motorbike stunt rider. That’s by no means as sweet, but does have a genius scene where he loses his virginity, not to mention a great blow job gag, so we’ll allow it.
Director Carl Reiner – who cameos as himself, suing his leading man – surrounds Martin with a great supporting cast. Besides Peters (who gets to put her musical skills to good use), Jackie Mason crops up as the owner of Martin’s gas station, along with a psychotic M. Emmet Walsh, and Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (who also co-scripted here).
Whilst The Man With Two Brains may be funnier, and Roxanne more consistent, The Jerk is a great early vehicle for Martin’s talent. Those only familiar with his more recent, inconsistent, family-friendly work should be in for a pleasant surprise seeing how funny he can be when given free reign. The Jerk is frequently hilarious, very silly, and essential viewing for fans of the great man.
THE JERK (1979) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CARL REINER / SCREENPLAY: STEVE MARTIN, CARL GOTTLIEB, MICHAEL ELIAS / STARRING: STEVE MARTIN, BERNADETTE PETERS, M. EMMET WALSH, JACKIE MASON / RELEASE DATE: 28TH MARCH