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JUST BEFORE The Jerk awkwardly meanders into its last few glossy seconds, Navin Johnson (Steve Martin) stares despondently into the camera, sighs melodramatically and declaims, "It's an old story--one you've probably heard before--but I never thought it would happen to me!" Navin is referring to his extremely brief career as an overnight business success--and his even speedier denouement--but the only verisimilitude the cliche holds in this epitome of trite movies seems to emanate from Martin's own soul.
Milking the Southern California entertainment racket for every dollar it eagerly offers to him, Martin quickly has come to bask in the pecuniary reflections of his egomania--recently bolstered by the sales of Cruel Shoes (by the Writer), Comedy is Not Pretty (by Martin the Record Maker) and now The Jerk (by Martin the Actor and Screenwriter).
Though his resume may qualify him for Renaissance Man of 1980, The Jerk imparts a sense of certainty to what Cruel Shoes strongly suggested: Martin should have preserved his integrity as a Comedian by sticking to the stage. We may see fit to excuse ex-football players and offspring of has-beens for deluging book stores and movie theaters with sloppily-executed self-glorification, but it is difficult to forgive Martin, whose idiosyncratic combination of spasticism and smoothness--which earned him his first taste of stardom while on the club circuit might still work if he hadn't taken the jack-of-all-trades route. But Steve the Screenwriter insisted of confronting film, while the Comedian must have observed in silent protest. The Screenwriter concocted an hour-and-a-half-long one-minute joke, and he undoubtedly ended up with the last and perhaps only laugh--the moviegoer certainly doesn't.
Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias must share the blame for The Jerk's tedious and disjointed script, which features Navin as the adopted son of poor blacks in Mississippi who leaves his family's shack to "find himself" in St. Louis. Navin, the Jerk, lacks any semblance of social grace or intelligence; it is all too evident from Scene One that he will trip over any wild 'n crazy opportunity that might chance to extend its foot. Good idea (Jerry Lewis pumped it for a lot of mileage), but Martin, Gottlieb and Elias fail miserably in attempting its execution.
Consider the scene in which Navin meets Marie, played by the oh-so-cute Bernadette Peters. Less than five minutes after they have accidently met, Navin asks Marie for a date. Marie: "O.K." Navin: "Do you have a boyfriend?" Marie: "Well..." Pregnant, supposedly meaning-laden pause. Navin: "If I was your boyfriend, I'd be around all the time." Marie (brimming with passion): "Well, we have a date tomorrow." Nearby dog: "Woof."
But that's only the serious, dramatic side of this versatile film. For comedy-lovers, Martin et. al have enriched The Jerk with a veritable cornucopia of third-grade potty humor. There are jokes about farting and saying "shit" and discovering sexual organs, to cite just a few. And for the more sophisticated viewer, say, a seventh-grader, The Jerk features a condom falling out of Navin's wallet when he meets Marie, not to mention jokes about Navin's naivete--like his misconception about the meaning of the phrase "blow job" or his run-in with a man named "Iron Balls" or the name of his dog: Shithead. Not the stuff sophisticated humor is made of. Or any type of humor, for that matter.
Granted, Martin's acting talent surfaces periodically, especially when he adopts the mien of one of his reportoire of nightclub personalities. A few minutes of film, chronicling Navin's first job as a gas station attendant in St. Louis, for example, allow Martin to strut his stuff on familiar territory; but those short scenes are eclipsed by Martin's overall prostitution of his skills in the better (or worse, as the case may be) part of The Jerk.
And Peters--whose moves in front of the camera sometimes conjure up images of a member of the audience on "The Bozo Show"--undoubtedly will not keep Meryl Streep awake worrying about Academy Award competition. Although the script gives her virtually nothing to work with, Martin's real-life girlfriend probably has more artistically satisfying experiences on The Mike Douglas Show.
In what is supposed to be a romantic scene, Navin woos Marie while Peters notices that too much of her cleavage is exposed and nervously adjusts her clothing, glancing up towards where the director, Carl Reiner, probably stood. Call the innovative acting--but it was obviously not in the script.
REINER, OF COURSE, is ultimately culpable for mistakes like that. Halfway through the film, one begins to wonder whether he wandered off the set between each "Action!" and "That's a take." Before Navin acquires his fortune by inventing the "Optigrab"--a device which holds eyeglasses to the face by running a piece of wire from the bridge of the glasses to the tip of nose--Marie leaves him, apparently because he is not wealthy. As she composes her farewell note, a heavily-made-up Peters cries crocodile tears--as mascara and eyeshadow smear their way down her face. Reiner does not allow her to escape with her looks intact, let alone her pride.
Then again, no one who participated in The Jerk has anything to take pride in, least of all Martin. But unlike Navin, Martin most likely will not be sued for marketing a faulty product (the "Optigrab" causes 10 million consumers to go cross-eyed) and will pocket a tidy sum from this film. Navin winds up in the gutter; Martin will probably purchase a new ski chalet in Aspen. Yet, in the end, Navin may end up the richer man--his adopted family and Marie find him on Skid Row and shower him with affirmation and love. As for Steve, if Martin the Writer continues to dominate Martin and Comedian, he may well find both his coffers and his mailbox empty after a few more flops like this film. By muffling his talent it loud strains of self-adulation like his most recent buck-snatching endeavors, Martin is eliciting the disgust of many of his early fans. Navin may be a jerk, but Martin is a fool.
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