Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Jerk

Directed by Carl Reiner and written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias, The Jerk is the story of an idiotic white man who was born into a family of black sharecroppers as he is forced to make it on his own where he suddenly becomes rich with a strange adventure. The film is a comedy that the rise and fall of a dimwitted man who has no idea what he’s done. Starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, and Jackie Mason. The Jerk is a fun and delightful comedy from Carl Reiner.

Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) is a homeless bum who was adopted many years ago by a family of black sharecroppers in Mississippi as he reflects his past in how he realized he’s just a white man living with a black family. Realizing that he needs to leave to find out who he is, Navin goes on an adventure to St. Louis where he adopts a dog he calls Shithead and gets a job and place working at a gas station run by Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason). One day when dealing with a customer named Stan Fox (Bill Macy), Navin reveals an invention that can help Fox not keep his glasses from slipping as Fox is happy about the invention. Meanwhile, a madman (M. Emmet Walsh) goes after Navin as he chases Navin towards a traveling carnival where Navin gets a new job there as well as girlfriend in an intimidating biker named Patty Bernstein (Catlin Adams).

After meeting a beautiful young woman in Marie (Bernadette Peters), Navin falls in love with her until Patty finds out where she confronts Marie only to get a surprise of her own. Navin and Marie have a courtship until Marie leaves abruptly where Navin has no idea what to do until he gets a message from Fox over the invention Navin made. Suddenly, Navin is rich as he reunites with Marie as they live a lavish life. Yet, it would all change when filmmaker Carl Reiner files a lawsuit against Navin for the invention as it would become Navin’s downfall.

The film is essentially a comical take on the rise-and-fall story as it focuses on a dim-witted white man who was adopted by a black family as he has trouble figuring out who he is until he makes an invention where he becomes rich until something goes wrong. It’s a story that does play to the formula but it is more about this dimwitted man who has no clue about the world outside while he often stumbles his way into fame and fortune. The screenplay does play into these conventions while creating a character that is as silly and as na├»ve as Navin R. Johnson as he claims to be born as a poor black child. Throughout his journey, he learns about his “special purpose” while falling in love and go through all sorts of trials and tribulations.

Carl Reiner’s direction is definitely off-the-wall in terms of the way he presents comedy as it is partially a road film and an existential comedy of sorts. Shot in all sorts of locations, Reiner makes sure that he finds a way for the comedy to just be loose and natural. Notably as it plays to the way Navin stumbles around in his journey from one part of the world to another. Even as Navin does something that is quite stupid where Reiner always inject something to maintain the film’s humor. While a lot of the technical presentation is straightforward, Reiner does manage to find ways to keep the humor intact as the film becomes more absurd as it progresses right to the end. Overall, Reiner creates a very funny film about the rise and fall of a white man born as a poor black child.

Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper does nice work with the film‘s photography as a lot of it is straightforward including the stylish lights for the disco room at Navin‘s mansion. Editors Bud Molin and Ron Spang do terrific work with the editing by utilizing lots of rhythmic cuts for some of the film‘s crazier moments such as the scenes where Navin writes letters to his family and a hilarious scene involving Navin trying to chase a kid riding a small train. Production designer Jack T. Collis and set decorator Richard C. Goddard do excellent work with some of the set pieces including the scenes at the carnival and at the mansion.

Costume designer Theodora Van Runkle does wonderful work with the costumes from the dresses that Marie wears to the leather-biker clothes of Patty. The sound work of Charles M. Wilborn is superb for some of the film‘s big moments such as Navin dancing to soft music and some of the scenes at the mansion. The film’s music by Jack Elliot is excellent as it is a mixture of all sorts of music from blues, classical, and other pieces to play up the film’s humor while the music features a blues piece in the film’s early moments as well as a great duet between Martin and Peters for the song Tonight, You Belong to Me.

The casting by Gino Havens and Penny Perry is great for the ensemble that is created as it features appearances from Rob Reiner as a truck driver, Carl Reiner as himself, co-writer Carl Gottlieb as the infamous Iron Balls McGinty, Richard Ward and Mabel King as Navin’s parents, and Bill Macy as the investor Stan Fox. Catlin Adams is very funny as the intimidating biker Patty Bernstein while Jackie Mason is superb as the wise yet humorous gas station owner Harry Hartounian. M. Emmet Walsh is excellent as the madman who tries to go after Navin in the most insane ways. Bernadette Peters is wonderful as Marie who falls for Navin as she becomes the one person Navin is willing to share his life with.

Finally, there’s Steve Martin in an outstanding performance as Navin R. Johnson. It’s a film that truly defines Martin as one of the great comedy actors in the way he is able to make an imbecile so likeable while doing things that are noble but in the dumbest of ways. It is a performance by Martin that one just couldn’t stop watching where he does whatever it takes to bring laughter while also showing sensitivity to his performance as he is the heart and soul of this film.

The Jerk is an incredibly hilarious comedy from Carl Reiner featuring a remarkable performance from Steve Martin. The film is definitely one of the most off-the-wall and absurd comedies made in the 1970s while being a great springboard for the career of Steve Martin. It’s also a film that isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect or just be very low-brow. In the end, The Jerk is a marvelous film from Carl Reiner.

Carl Reiner Films: (Enter Laughing) - (The Comic) - (Where’s Poppa?) - (Oh God!) - (The One and Only) - (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) - (The Man with Two Brains) - (All of Me) - (Summer Rental) - (Summer School) - (Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool) - (Sibling Rivalry) - (Fatal Instinct) - (That Old Feeling)

© thevoid99 2013

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