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definition - The Jerk

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The Jerk

The Jerk

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Carl Reiner
Produced by David V. Picker
William E. McEuen
Written by Steve Martin
Carl Gottlieb
Michael Elias
Starring Steve Martin
Bernadette Peters
M. Emmet Walsh
Jackie Mason
Dick O'Neill
Mabel King
Music by Jack Elliott
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Editing by Bud Molin
Ron Spang
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s)
  • December 14, 1979 (1979-12-14)
Running time 94 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $73,691,419[1]

The Jerk is a 1979 American comedy film. Directed by Carl Reiner, the film was written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias. 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 warn of 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 Asian man angrily suggests he call the dog "Shithead," which Navin takes literally.

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 (M. Emmet Walsh) randomly flips through the phone book and picks "Johnson, Navin R." as his next victim. As the madman watches through his rifle scope, waiting for a clear shot, Navin fixes 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. Seizing his chance, the crazed sniper tries to kill Navin, but fails, hitting the oil cans in the station window and a soft-drink machine. The lunatic chases Navin to a traveling carnival, where Navin hides out, eventually getting a job with SJM Fiesta Shows as a weight guesser. While employed there, Navin meets an intimidating daredevil biker 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 reluctantly decides to leave him because of his lack of financial security. She writes a note and slips out while Navin is in the bath.

At an emotional and financial low, Navin is soon contacted by Stan Fox with exciting news: His glasses invention, now called the Opti-Grab, is selling big and he's entitled to half of the profits. Now extremely rich, he finds and marries Marie, and they buy an extravagant mansion. Their life becomes one of splendor and non-stop partying. However, motion-picture director Carl Reiner (playing himself) files a class action lawsuit against Navin. Reiner claims that the Opti-Grab caused his eyes to be crossed and his resulting poor vision caused the death of a stunt driver in the film he was directing. Nearly ten million other people have the same vision complaint (including the judge and prosecution), and are awarded $10 million in damages. Bankrupt, depressed, and now homeless, he is abandoned by Marie and is soon living on the streets. His story now told, he resigns himself to a life of misery and memories of Marie, but to his amazed joy, she suddenly appears, along with Navin's family, and some more good news: Having carefully invested the small sums of money he sent home throughout the film, they've become wealthy themselves. They pick him up off the street, and he and Marie move back home into the Johnsons' new house — a much larger but identical version of their old, small shack.

The story ends with the entire family dancing on the porch and singing "Pick a Bale of Cotton", with Navin dancing along, now having gained perfect rhythm.


The basic premise comes from a stand-up routine (included on his debut comedy album, Let's Get Small), in which Martin claimed to have been "born a poor black child," and how, after hearing his first Mantovani record, he "decided to become white."



This Movie was co-produced by William E. McEuen, the first of many films to be produced by William McEuen. Bill and John McEuen are best known for their collaboration on brother John's work with "Nitty Gritty Dirt Band". Bill McEuen is the Producer of several of the early Dirt Band Albums as well.[citation needed] Steve Martin wrote the part of "Marie" with Bernadette Peters in mind.[2]


A box office hit earning over $73 million[1] (making the movie the 9th highest-grossing of 1979), The Jerk has been praised as not only one of Steve Martin's best comedic efforts, but also one of the funniest of all motion pictures: In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted The Jerk the 48th greatest comedy film of all time. This film is #20 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies" and #89 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs. Premiere magazine voted Steve Martin's performance of Navin Johnson #89 on their list, "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time." It has an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

  Critical response

The New York Times reviewer wrote that The Jerk "is by turns funny, vulgar and backhandedly clever, never more so than when it aspires to absolute stupidity. And Mr. Martin, who began his career with an arrow stuck through his head, has since developed a real genius for playing dumb... Even when it's crude — which is quite a lot of the time — it's not mean-spirited... Mr. Martin and his co-star, Bernadette Peters, work very sweetly together, even when they sing a duet of 'Tonight You Belong to Me,' carrying sweetness to what could easily have become an intolerable extreme."[3]

  Awards and honors

American Film Institute recognition


There was a 1984 TV movie sequel The Jerk, Too, starring Mark Blankfield as Navin (the Steve Martin role in the original). It was co-written by Steve Martin, and possibly intended as a pilot for a TV series.[4] Mr Satanism, author of The 100 Best Movies Ever Made...Mostly Suck, called it "like stepping in dog shit".[5]


  1. ^ a b "Box Office Information for The Jerk". Box Office Mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=jerk.htm. Retrieved January 28, 2012. 
  2. ^ Martin, Frank W."The Jerk Made Detractors Eat Crow" People Magazine, January 21, 1980
  3. ^ Maslin, Janet."Movie Review:'The Jerk'" The New York Times, December 14, 1979
  4. ^ Erik Davis, "Yes, These Exist: 'Splash Too' and 'The Jerk, Too'", Moviefone blog, 2010/04/02
  5. ^ "The Jerk, Too", The World of Mr Satanism

  External links



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