Category Archives: 1979

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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The China Syndrome (1979, James Bridges)

Silly attempt at a Pakula-style paranoid thriller collapses under its own importance. Michael Douglas stars in the film–probably one of his first high profile roles–and produces it too. China Syndrome proves who’s responsible for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (if it wasn’t Kesey) and it isn’t Douglas. Syndrome doesn’t have a firm protagonist, it starts focused on Jane Fonda’s reporter (who exists in a situation not dissimilar to Anchorman, down to the parties) and then moves over to Jack Lemmon. Lemmon does a good job, but he’s hardly got anything to work with. He eats sandwiches a lot. At least Fonda has a pet turtle.

Since the film’s so heavy–and not even in a misdirected way, it’s all about the evils of big business–that it needs some humanity and doesn’t have any. Why bother saving Southern California from a nuclear disaster if it’s only filled with corporate heels and terrible Michael Douglas performances. I should have had some idea, of course, since I’ve seen Bridges’ most famous film, The Paper Chase. It too is full of shit, but almost nothing can describe how full of shit The China Syndrome truly gets. The end is laugh out loud funny.

However, Wilford Brimley shows up and does a great job. It’s his first movie, actually. Or one of them. Wow, poor guy. He was only fifty-one in Cocoon. Talk about getting type-cast early.

Oh, reading on IMDb. Richard Dreyfuss was originally going to be in it, then common sense intruded. The China Syndrome is really a case of too many writers being involved in a project and none of them being good. Bridges is a decent enough director, just can’t write compelling human conflicts.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Bridges; written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and Bridges; director of photography, James Crabe; edited by David Rawlins; production design, George Jenkins; produced by Michael Douglas; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman De Young), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Don Jacovich) and Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler).