The Jerk (1979)


The Jerk is a 1979 American rags-to-riches-to-rags comedy film of belated self-discovery. This was Steve Martin's first starring role in a feature film. The film also features Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh and Jackie Mason.


The film begins with Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin), a homeless bum, directly addressing the camera and telling his story. He is the adopted white son of African American sharecroppers, who grows to adulthood naïvely unaware of his obvious adoption. He stands out in his family not just because of his skin color, but also because of his utter lack of rhythm when his adopted family plays spirited blues music. One night, he hears the staid and starchy Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra Song called "Crazy Rhythm" on the radio and his feet spontaneously begin to move with the urge to dance; he sees this as a calling and decides to hitchhike to St. Louis, from where the song was broadcast. On the way, he stops at a motel, where a dog wakes him up by barking at his door. Navin thinks the dog is trying to tell him there's a fire and decides to name the dog "Lifesaver." He wakes up the other hotel guests to rescue them, but when everyone realizes it was a false alarm, one man angrily suggests he call the dog "Shithead," which Navin does throughout the film. Navin gets a job (and a place to sleep) at a gas station owned by Mr. Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason). He's thrilled to find that he's listed in the local phone book, as his name is "in print" for the first time. Not long after, a gun-wielding lunatic randomly flips through the phone book and picks "Johnson, Navin R." as his next victim. As the madman watches through his rifle scope, Navin is fixing the slippery glasses of a customer, Stan Fox (Bill Macy), by adding a handle and a nose brake. Fox offers to split the profits 50/50 with Navin if he can market the invention, then departs. The crazed sniper tries to kill Navin, but fails, hitting the oil cans in the station window and a soft-drink machine. Navin assumes that the gunman is out to shoot the cans— "He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!" The lunatic chases him to a traveling carnival. Navin climbs into a truck to hide, but the truck drives away; Navin ends up getting a job with SJM Fiesta Shows as a weight guesser. While employed there, Navin meets a daredevil biker woman named Patty Bernstein (Catlin Adams) and has a sexual relationship with her, finally realizing what his "special purpose" (his euphemism for his penis) is for. He then meets a woman named Marie (Bernadette Peters) and arranges a date with her. Patty confronts them, but Marie knocks her out. While courting, Navin and Marie walk along the beach and sing "Tonight You Belong to Me", with Navin playing the ukulele and Marie on the cornet. Navin and Marie fall in love, but Marie decides to leave him because of his lack of financial security. She writes a note and slips out while Navin is in the bath singing his new song, "I'm Picking Out a Thermos For You." Navin soon finds out that his glasses invention, now called the Opti-Grab, is selling big and he's entitled to half of the profits; his first check is for $250,000, though Navin initially believes the total to be just $250. He finds and marries Marie, and they hire a live-in butler and chambermaid, despite living in a small apartment. The next check is for $750,000, which he uses to buy an extravagant mansion. Navin doesn't stay rich for long, though, as director Carl Reiner (playing himself) files a class action lawsuit against Navin, claiming that the invention caused his crossed eyes and the death of a stunt driver. Nearly ten million other people have the same complaint and join the lawsuit. Navin is forced to refund $1.09 to every Opti-Grab customer (he is seen hand-writing each check), which bankrupts him. He is also forced to write a check to 'Iron Balls McGinty', a nemesis who had previously physically been attacked by Navin, while discussing ways to keep blacks (he called them "nigger"s in the movie which offended Navin) from renting in an apartment complex. Depressed, he leaves abruptly wearing nothing but his robe and his pants around his ankles. He claims that the only things he needs to survive are the TV remote control, a paddle-ball game, some matches, and a few other items. Living on the streets, he trades all of these items for a thermos, catching the story up to where the movie began. Marie contacts Navin's family, who've carefully invested the small sums of money he sent home throughout the film and become wealthy themselves. They find him (in the first place they look) and pick him up off the street, he and Marie move back home in a "bigger house" (the same old shack, with new rooms added-on and a ten-foot front door), and they live happily ever after. The story ends with the entire family dancing on the porch and singing 'Pick a Bale of Cotton', with Navin having gained perfect rhythm.