Viking Night: The Jerk
By Bruce Hall
November 8, 2017
What’s funny about it is that they’re both the same fucking joke, and The Jerk is one of those wonderfully rare works of art that doesn’t settle for merely exploiting this loophole to make white people appear comically out of touch. Like its muted broadside against the exploitation of mental illness solely for melodrama, The Jerk takes advantage of traditional ethnic boilerplate to tell a wonderfully stupid little love story.
One day Navin discovers that something...something...music is his life’s calling, and he decides to leave home to seek his fortune. This leads him straight down the upwardly mobile path as he quickly finds work as whatever that job is called when you spend all day filling cars with gas and washing windshields. Thanks to his humble upbringing, though, Navin thinks he’s living life of Riley, eating pizza out of a cup in the back of an abandoned semi with a lovable little mutt named Shithead. After that, it seems perfectly normal that a homicidal maniac would force Navin to seek refuge in a traveling carnival as part-time sex puppet to a deranged Nazi biker dominatrix.
Does that sound odd? I hope not, because you haven’t even heard the half of it. Bernadette Peters does Madeline Kahn better than Madeline Kahn as Navin’s equally dimwitted love interest, and the two of them couldn’t be more adorable together. Not even when they spontaneously bust out an emotionally resonant Simon and Garfunkel-esque ukulele/trumpet duo (performed by the actors themselves) on a windswept beach around the midpoint of the story.
The Jerk takes what could have been - and probably should have been - an ordinary a cigar box guitar and turns it into an absurdly charismatic burlesque, filled with joy AND pathos.
Navin is a sweet, good natured boy who hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s too naive to realize that a tuna sandwich is not a birthday present, and that “pumping gas” isn’t a viable long term career choice any more than “entry level carnival barker.” He’s smart enough to appreciate the little things, though, and thoughtful enough to give of himself even when he’s got nothing left to give.
Simply put, he’s disarming in the dangerously oblivious way children are before they learn not to pet stray dogs, or use Mommy’s car keys to unlock the place where the TV plugs in. Such a character might easily have amounted to little than a proto-Ace Ventura; as annoying as he is eminently punchable. Such a film might have ended up as foundation to the dustbin of comedy history like Caddyshack 2 or pretty much every Police Academy sequel (at best - or in the bowels of hell if I have anything to say about it). Luckily Steve Martin is a genius, having written and starred in one of the most charming and innovative comedies of the 1970s.
It’s like a Charlie Chaplin nouveau-riche satire updated for the disco age. And if you think that sounds hopelessly retro, remember that nobody makes movies like this anymore. And unlike the AMC Pacer, Starland Vocal Band and the chevron moustache, The Jerk is an artifact of that long-ago time that bears revisiting. And if you haven’t revisited Steve Martin’s best work in some time, what better film to start with than the one that first made him a legitimate film star?
Talk about turning cigar box guitars into ukuleles.