The Jerk

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The Jerk

The difficulty of making a smooth transition to the big screen has vexed many great stand-up talents, because even though movie acting might seem like a natural extension of a comic's job, it tends to strip away some of the danger and personality of a one-man show. Just ask Richard Pryor, one of the most incisive, important monologists of the '70s: He starred in a whole pack of middling movies, a couple of decent ones, and none that anyone scrambles to call great. Steve Martin, on the other hand, moved from the stage—where he was a massive, arena-filling star—to the screen with relative ease and grace, incorporating tiny bits of his own life into movies like 1979's sweet, lighthearted, occasionally hilarious The Jerk.

"I was born a poor black child," Martin laments at the outset, preceding a dozen jokes with one punch line that sets up his character's life as a square white innocent raised by a black family in rural Mississippi. The lure of easy-listening music on the radio beckons him to St. Louis, where he works at Jackie Mason's gas station, gets randomly stalked by an over-the-top M. Emmet Walsh, and casually invents a device called the Opti-Grab, which later makes him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But first, he works as a carnival weight-guesser, discovers his special purpose (a.k.a. his penis), then meets and loses drippy love-interest Bernadette Peters.

Money corrupts Martin, but not too terribly: He buys everything, and the montage about his dream house is charming in its gaudiness. Servants wait, undeserving charities come calling, and Martin must beat up a group of potential business associates for using the N-word. ("You are talking to a nigger!" he proclaims before putting the smack down.) When his world comes crashing down, courtesy of a guest spot by director Carl Reiner, Martin only gets funnier, wandering off into the poor life as effortlessly as he wandered into being rich. Unfortunately, the 26th-anniversary-edition DVD of The Jerk offers no insights from Martin (or Reiner, or Peters, or anyone, for that matter). Two perplexing bonus features—a ukulele lesson and some unfunny bonus scenes that look like they were specially created for the DVD—round out the spare disc. But Martin's goofball performance, the best and broadest of his comedic screen career, is enough to carry The Jerk through.

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