Monday, December 9, 2013

THE JERK (1979)

Don't underestimate the importance of The Jerk. It was a key moment of the late 1970s for many movie goers. It was the year's ninth highest grosser - on a budget of approximately 4-million dollars, it made $100,000,000 worldwide, an astonishing amount for the time, particularly considering it was anchored by a man known for wearing an arrow through his head. Seeing it now is like stepping into a time machine. There's plenty of disco music, and gold chains, a parody of Bruce Lee movies. We see some old, familiar faces, from Jackie Mason and Bernadette Peters, to M. Emmet Walsh,  Bill Macy, and Carl Reiner. In one scene we even see a pair of blues legends, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. As wacky as it is, it's very much an American road movie, taking place in gas stations and carnivals, swanky Los Angeles, and even Hollywood's skid row, each episode suggesting the dangers of fame. Is it only a coincidence that the opening scene takes place in an alley behind a theater showing Deathtrap?

Steve Martin plays Navin Johnson, a borderline imbecile who was adopted by a black family in Mississippi. The idea came from Martin's stand-up act, when he would casually say, "I was born a poor black child..." He's loved by his family, but struggles to fit in: he doesn't like their food, he preferes Tuna on white bread, Tab, and Twinkies. But more disconcerting to him is that he has no rhythm, and can't dance to the music his family likes. In a scene where his mother hugs him, he tries in vain to snap his fingers. She reveals to him that he's not black, which shocks him. ("You mean I'll stay this color forever?") When Navin accidentally hears some "white" music on the radio, he takes that as his cue to hit the road and find himself. Like Voltaire's Candide, he's an innocent seeking out the best of all possible worlds. He ends up working as a gas attendant, and then, as a carnival barker. When a fluky invention of his is patented, he becomes rich and famous. Then, through another fluke, he loses it all. He ends up a homeless wino. "I'm no bum," he says. "I'm a jerk."

The audience was ready for Martin's first starring vehicle. His appearances on Saturday Night Live, his comedy albums, and his stand-up comedy tours had made him the most famous comic of his era. My generation didn't see the Beatles or Elvis on Ed Sullivan, but for us, seeing Steve Martin on SNL was just as inspiring, sending us to school the next day saying Did you see it!? It was  unheard of  in the 1970s for a stand up comic to star in his own film, but there was a sense that The Jerk was inevitable.  In Martin's memoir, 'Born Standing Up,' he says he wanted the film to "have the feel of a saga," and that the title should "be something short, yet have the feeling of an epic tale. Like Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot', but not like that." Working with screenwriting partner Carl Gottlieb, as well as Michael Elias, and director Reiner, Martin aimed for a laugh on every page. "I didn't know the rules," Martin said. "So it had a freewheeling feeling, which I liked."

It was a good era for comedy. The public's appetite for silly stuff had been whetted by films like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Animal House, as well as the early years of SNL and Monty Python's Flying Circus.  Sophisticated comedies like 10 and Manhattan were still popular, but silliness was coming to the fore. Martin didn't hide the fact that he idolized Jerry Lewis, a performer who didn't mean much by the late 1970s.

The Jerk was released in Dec. 1979, to mixed, and even harsh reviews. The New York Times' Janet Maslin described it as "by turns funny, vulgar, and backhandedly clever." A critic from the Chicago Daily Herald found Navin Johnson to be too dumb to be sympathetic, and cited "Reiner's limp direction" for "allowing even the best scenes to be dragged out beyond the point of excruciating boredom." Roger Ebert, who wasn't a fan of Martin in those days, wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, "There's a smarmy undercurrent in this movie that seems to imply that Steve Martin may be playing a jerk, but that we all know what a cool guy he is. Well, if you're going to play a jerk, play one as if you think you are one, or you might wind up looking like a jerk." Ebert eventually came to appreciate Martin, as did Pauline Kael, who described his work in Roxanne a few years later as a cross between W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton.

Things happen to Navin Johnson by accident. He doesn't survive by his wits, he survives by dumb luck. His relationships with women are passive, too. First, he meets a female stunt driver at the carnival who abuses him physically and turns him into a cowering wreck. His real love is for Marie (Bernadette Peters), a much sweeter girl (it's Peters who beats up the stunt driver, rescuing Navin and taking him for herself). Navin is also being stalked by a madman (Walsh) who arrives at the gas station where Navin works and shoots up the place. There's much random violence in this world of The Jerk -the psychopath stalking him only does so because he picked Navin's name out of the local phonebook;  Marie even takes up knife throwing and uses Navin as her target.  Navin narrowly avoids disaster, as if protected by his own good nature. At one point he  falls to the ground in fear as the madman approaches. The madman, though, has turned over a new leaf by this time and is no longer stalking him. Again, Navin is saved, but not by anything he's done. Navin Johnson may be the most passive of comedy heroes.
But audiences didn't love him for being a man of action. We loved him because he had a dog named Shithead; we loved him because he left home wearing  a WW1 aviator's helmet and goggles; and when he danced, he did so with abandon. Besides, if he could land a sweet-looking honey like Peters, there was hope for the rest of us jerks.

Peters and Martin have a nice chemistry here - they were romantically linked for a while in real life - and it makes me wish Peters and Martin had made a dozen movies together. She has one of the film's memorable lines, when she realizes Navin has lost his fortune. "I'm not going to miss the money," she says, closing her eyes dreamily. "I'm going to miss all the stuff...." I'm not sure why that's funny, but it still tickles me. She manages to be greedy, and guilty over it, in the same breath. It's also Peters who bails Navin out at the end. He ends up living in the gutter, but Peters tracks down his family and rescues him. That Martin opted to play a character constantly abused, and then rescued, by women, was far different than most of the comedy stars of the day. That the film did such good business says a lot about the audiences of the time.

The Jerk outgrossed films by Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Redford, that year,  a sign that an era of smirking macho men was perhaps coming to an end. Even Moonraker, the year's James Bond offering, fell to The Jerk juggernaut.

Martin was smart to keep the movie in the vein of his stand-up shows, because that's what his audience wanted and expected. But a strange thing happened. Once filming had ended, he felt ambivalent about returning to the concert stage. He still had several months of show dates to fulfill, but he was growing increasingly cranky about the touring and the repetition involved. He also suspected his stand-up comedy days were numbered. Making movies, he felt, was his future. He also felt The Jerk  provided a culmination of everything he'd done previously. What his fans felt was a raucous debut, was actually his goodbye to a certain type of comedy.  He would go on to have a fine career as an actor and screenwriter, gravitating towards a milder kind of family comedy, but nothing he did would ever match The Jerk in terms of mass appeal. Its influence is still felt in the films of the Farrelly brothers, and particularly in the films of Sacha Baron Cohen.

At a recent AFI program celebrating the film, Martin spoke about its longevity. "I think the reason it's lasted is because it's so innocent, and because it's so cheerful, and because the lead character is pretty stupid; you kind of get on his side pretty fast."
Some of the film's power comes from the simple plot, which is the basic "hero's journey." A young man leaves home, experiences some adventures, and then returns to share what he has learned. It's a plot as old as storytelling itself, found in everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. Such basic sagas have a curious power about them, and rarely fail.  Martin's masterstroke was that he married this type of story to his wacky persona of the day. Audiences got two things from The Jerk: a character they recognized, and a story arc that absorbed them, like the best fairy tales. Critics may not have understood what was happening, but audiences did. Navin wasn't just a jerk, he was our jerk.
It was smart to end the film with Navin Johnson returning home. Had it ended with him going on to more fame and fortune, or if the film had followed his trajectory of success established in the first half, we might have seen Navin become president or the king of a foreign country. That may have provided a few laughs, but it wouldn't have been logical. Any good that came to him was strictly happenstance. Perhaps his fortune would change again, but chances are the madmen and abusive women would be there, too. Navin belonged with his family where he'd be safe. Besides, his father had invested the money Navin had occasionally sent home, investing in a bigger shack. In that regard, Navin was a hero of sorts, providing some comfort for his loved ones.
The film's closing scene is my favorite. The family is on the porch, jamming on a country blues tune called 'Pick a Bale of Cotton.' Bernadette Peters is seen at the side of the porch, clapping her hands in time to the beat. Then Navin comes roaring out from nowhere, banging a spoon on a coffee cup, and incredibly, dancing. Martin seems superhuman here,  his body appearing to bend at unfathomable angles, careening from one side of the porch to the other, looking as if he might tumble. He stops once to kiss Peters, and then resumes his joyous dance. He's where he belongs. He has found his rhythm.

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