Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, July 23, 2005

26th anniversary dvd of The Jerk

National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada)
July 23, 2005 Saturday
Toronto Edition
Screwball sensibility and sensitivity: Steve Martin has a strong legacy but not an Oscar nomination
Chris Knight, National Post

It's hard to believe it's been 26 years since standup comedian Steve Martin first had a starring role in a motion picture -- but easy to remember, because the aptly named 26th anniversary edition of The Jerk hits shelves this Tuesday.

As rags to riches stories go, openings don't come much better than "I was born a poor black child." Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, growing up in the South, feeling out of place because he's the only one in his family without rhythm, until his mother pulls him aside and reveals that he is not her natural child. Navin's reaction: "You mean I'm going to stay this colour?"

The Jerk (the French-Canadian title, oddly, is Un Vrai Schnock) works as well as it does because, while Martin acts like a total buffoon, everyone and everything else in the movie is completely straight, from love interest Bernadette Peters, to Jackie Mason as a gas station owner who gives Navin his first job, to director Carl Reiner playing himself. Navin's invention, the Opti-Grab (an ugly handle that makes it easier to don and doff your glasses), causes Reiner to go cockeyed, with tragic results to his filmmaking career.

Reiner's own career was helped a great deal by The Jerk: He went on to direct Martin in the brilliant noir parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and a bit of insanity called The Man With Two Brains. The Jerk heralded the kind of non-sequitur comedy soon to be seen in Airplane!, Top Secret! and a number of other exclamatory titles by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers.

Whether sitting in his Cup 'o Pizza decorated home, screaming "The new phone book's here!" (Navin is convinced having his name in print means he's going places) or chasing a tiny runaway train, there is no situation Martin can't bend into a comedic shape. It's no wonder he got his start making balloon animals.

The bonus features on the disc highlight the film's screwball sensibility as well as its sensitive side. In the zany category are the lost filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova: Father Carlos asks Navin for money to combat the Latin American scourge of cat juggling; the bonus material shows that he also had at his disposal footage of fish teasing (tapping on the glass, pretending to feed them with empty food containers), verbal plant abuse and the heinous crime of dressing small dogs in cute but undignified costumes.

Strangely sweet is a scene in which Martin and Peters sing an old love song, Tonight You Belong to Me, accompanied by Martin on ukulele and Peters on cornet. The disc includes a quick ukulele lesson in case you want to master the chords and play along at home. Martin makes it look easy, but his many talents include a mastery of small stringed instruments; he once won a Grammy for his banjo playing.

Since The Jerk he has had success as a novelist (Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company), playwright (Picasso at the Lapin Agile), New Yorker contributor, art collector and screenwriter (he co-wrote The Jerk with Carl Gottlieb, and penned L.A. Story and Bowfinger, among others). But his acting career has had more than its share of duds, and last year he was nominated for a Razzie Award in the worst actor category for roles in Bringing Down the House, Cheaper By the Dozen and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. He didn't win, but he's also never been nominated for an Oscar, although he did host the ceremonies once. The release of The Pink Panther, in which he stars as Inspector Clouseau, has been delayed several times; not a good sign in Hollywood.

Still, Martin, who turns 60 this year, has a strong legacy, often when playing alongside fellow comics as in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Candy), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Michael Caine) and All of Me (Lily Tomlin). In 1991 he worked with Martin Short in Father of the Bride, which was just released (a year early, but who's counting?) in a 15th-anniversary edition that includes among its extras a Steve-Martin-Short interview, in which the two stars ad-lib Short's supposed heavy drinking, short temper and his role as the bride. It's pure lunacy -- the kind we can expect from Martin, maybe not every time out, but often enough to keep us happy.


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