Steve Martin stars in THE JERK, directed by Carl Reiner for Universal Pictures.

The Jerk (1979, Carl Reiner)

“Classics.” In the sense, “oh, it’s a classic.” Possibly even, “it’s classic.” “Classic” is a lousy classification for film. It’s applied mostly as if it were a genre, with something like King Kong escaping to the sci-fi section, but A Night at the Opera absent from the comedy one.

The Jerk is considered a “classic” and I don’t quite get it. It’s occasionally funny, but mostly drags on. It’s poorly titled (according to IMDb, the working title was Easy Money, which is better), because The Jerk suggests… well, it suggests Steve Martin is playing a jerk. According to Oxford’s, a jerk is (in the informal) a contemptibly obnoxious person. The film gets the title from the colloquialism, “What do you think I am, some kind of a jerk or something?” Except, in that colloquialism jerk doesn’t mean obnoxious person, it means sap, dope, maybe patsy. I suppose they could have called any of those, but didn’t. Because The Jerk, starring Steve Martin in a bathrobe, looks like a movie you’d want to see. It looks like a funny movie.

The film’s structure is also particular. Bernadette Peters has almost no dialogue for the film’s last third or so. She’s around–both on screen and in the story–but she’s not doing anything. The film is so delineated into scenes, once she’s done, she has to stick around, but the film doesn’t have anything to do with her. The first half of the film has this deliberate pacing–lots of funny moments in amusing scenes. The scenes flow from one to the other, more on the comedic factor than any sort of dramatic one. It’s not extreme enough to be notable, but it creates a pleasant viewing experience. The second half of the film, which feels like someone checked his or her watch and got really worried about the running time, is hurried and almost all in summary or half-scene.

Steve Martin wrote the script with Carl Gottlieb, who’s the only guy to work on all of the first three Jaws films. I imagine the tight structure of the first half is from his hand, but it’s hard to blame the second act on either writer. Once director Carl Reiner shows up in a cameo, it’s apparent the film’s lost its footing. Most of Reiner’s filmography is Steve Martin films, so I guess they liked each other, but Reiner’s not bringing anything particular to the film. I just finished watching it an hour ago and nothing’s resonating. It’s all seeped away, except maybe the subtly touching relationship between Martin and his adopted brother, played by Dick Anthony Williams.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, based on a story by Martin and Gottlieb; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Bud Molin; music by Jack Elliot; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Navin R. Johnson), Bernadette Peters (Marie Kimble Johnson), Catlin Adams (Patty Bernstein), Mabel King (Mother), Richard Ward (Father), Dick Anthony Williams (Taj Jonson), Bill Macy (Stan Fox), M. Emmet Walsh (Madman) and Dick O’Neill (Frosty).


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