Illustration: Adeline Pericart
It was Clubber Lang who first uttered the immortal words ‘I pity the fool’ when asked if he hated Rocky Balboa by an intrepid journalist seeking to hype up thier impending meeting in the ring. In honour of April we here at Film Ireland challenge Clubber Lang and propose to ‘praise the fool’.
Now bring on the jesters…
Navin R Johnson in The Jerk
Derek Mc Donnell
The Great Bard once wrote, ‘The fool doth thinks he is wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ This could have been written with the character of Navin R Johnson specifically in mind, the protagonist of The Jerk. He exists on a level of stupidity that make the Three Stooges look like Proustian scholars in comparison, a sweet, innocent naïf totally lacking in self awareness and street smarts who succeeds despite himself.
The Jerk made Steve Martin a comedy superstar back in 1979 in his first leading role after building up a loyal over the previous decade through his stand-up routine, which he honed an perfected to an almost scientific degree and which is detailed fascinatingly in his excellent memoir Born Standing Up. Martin’s ‘Wild and crazy guy’ shtick was a hilariously potent brand of seemingly incongruous elements mixing corny showbiz sentimentalism with a sophisticated, self-aware absurdism all delivered by a prematurely grey-haired white guy in a white suit. What seemed on the surface to be a bland all around entertainer was anything but. This was joyful comic subversiveness, a deconstruction of the old fashioned ‘entertainer’ and the smug, shallow world of show complete with balloon animals, musical parodies, slapstick and prop gags delivered in a deliberately stylized, over confident manner.
By 1978, Martin was the number one comedy star in America, filling thirty-thousand to fourty-thousand-seater stadiums, having best selling comedy albums with his visibility raised by regular television appearances on the then hip show Saturday Night Live. Realizing that his days of performing in small clubs had come to an end and that his act had run it’s course, Martin retired from stand-up and crossed over into feature films with The Jerk being the first result of this new career direction.
Co-written with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, Martin plays the title role, a dunderheaded yet sweet naive country boy who for no reason is adopted and raised by a poor African American family believing himself to be black. The film is basically just an excuse for a string of ridiculous set pieces and gags strung around Navin’s rags to riches then back to rags journey, Reiner adopts a throw everything against the wall and see what sticks approach to the films stream of visual and verbal gags, an approach that fortunately yields more hits than misses.
However, the key to the movies status as a comedy classic is of course, Steve Martin’s go-for-broke performance as the oblivious title character, a fool of galactic proportions who greets every triumph and obstacle with misguided enthusiasm, childlike optimism and a mile-wide gormless grin.
When he decides to leave home for the first time, he attempts to hitchhike from his family home. The first truck that stops offers to drive him to the end of the fence which Navin greets with no end of gratitude to the truck drivers disbelief. He is overjoyed when he discovers his name published in the phone book for the first time and his mind is blown when his exploitative gas station boss Jackie Mason offers him a place to stay, a utility room situated beside a urinal. And this is the basic tone of the movie the whole way through, a childlike simpleton in awe of the big wide world who can never believe his luck.
Along Navin’s colourful journey, he picks up a pet dog named ‘Shithead’, gets a job at a travelling carnival as a ‘Weight Guesser’, discovers his Special Purpose (euphemism for his male equipment), is stalked by a psychotic sniper played by the venerable M Emmet Walsh, falls in love with cutie pie Bernadette Peters and unwittingly creates a revolutionary glasses wearing device called The Opti-Grab which makes him so rich he can afford a water cooler containing the finest wines served in golden, diamond encrusted cups.
Probably not hard to guess that the plot and the jokes are pretty freewheeling and it would seem that both Reiner and Martin were just out to make each other laugh as much as possible. There is a story arc, a rise and fall success story but that’s not important. What is important, no absolutely vital here are the laughs which are plentiful and generous throughout. Even after having viewed it again recently for the umpteenth time, it still leaves me in stitches- ‘I’m gonna get back our money and then I’m gonna buy you a diamond so big that it will make you wanna PUKE!’
The Jerk is the king of dumb comedy in extremis smartly executed by master practitioners of the form.