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Universal Studios Home Video presents
The Jerk: 26th Anniversary Edition (1979)

"I was born a poor black child."
- Navin Johnson (Steve Martin)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 10, 2005

Stars: Steve Martin
Other Stars: Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, M. Emmett Walsh, Jackie Mason, Bill Macy, Maurice Evans, Dick O'Neill, Carl Gottlieb
Director: Carl Reiner

MPAA Rating: R for (language)
Run Time: 01h:33m:54s
Release Date: July 26, 2005
UPC: 025192734021
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

When Steve Martin made that eventual transition from standup comedy to feature films, his first lead role was in 1979's The Jerk, the first of four films he would do for director Carl Reiner. These four Martin/Reiner films made during the early 1980s—The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, All of Me, The Man with Two Brains—represent the brief "wild and crazy guy" phase of the comedian's film career, before he evolved into less wacky, slightly more mature comedic roles (Roxanne, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) that would shape the bulk of his roles.

As the first of the Martin/Reiner collaborations, The Jerk remains as a grand bit of goofy comedy, operating under a ridiculously loose story with Martin as the very naüve Navin Johnson, the adopted son of a black sharecropper family ("I was born a poor black child") who can't quite figure out why he's different ("You mean I'm gonna STAY this color?"). He eventually sets out on his own, with advice from his family ("Lord loves a workin' man" "Don't trust whitey" "See a doctor and get rid of it"), along the way getting a dog he names S***head, discovering the ups and downs of having your name in the phone book ("This is the kind of spontaneous publicity I need!"), falling in love with two very different women and inventing a product that makes him millions.

Even with a solid supporting cast of familiar faces (Jackie Mason, Bill Macy, M. Emmett Walsh, Maurice Evans, Bernadette Peters), The Jerk is all about Martin, and the character of Navin Johnson remains one of his most joyously simpleminded creations. The approach here is downright dumb comedy, and it really requires the proper balance between smug and innocent for it to work consistently, and Martin delivers a veiled variation of his once popular standup persona, something that would eventually vanish from his feature film roles after the underrated The Man with Two Brains in 1983.

But Martin does indeed carry The Jerk, making small moments (like filling out a bank application) seem more funny than they could have been if delivered by another actor. He has a delicate way with lines like "I have my temporary driver's license and my astronaut application form. I didn't pass that though, I failed everything but the date of birth," making the words seem both somehow genuine and comical, rather than just a simple, broad punchline.

But as the tagline says, it's all about going "from rags to riches...to rags," with Martin effortlessly and innocently deadpanning his way through some memorable chunks of dialogue as he rises and falls. For me, though, the plot is not as important as all the separate individual parts that make up The Jerk, and this is one of those films where the ratio of quotable scenes is very, very high. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I still use lines like "The new phone book's here" or "He hates these cans!" or "And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this" on a depressingly regular basis, and I've even been know to sing the Thermos song for no real reason.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There are days where you take the small pleasures where you can, and that's the case with the image transfer on this anniversary edition release. High huzzahs because this one finally exceeds the original shoddy full-frame disc from a few years back by showing up in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, which is very good news, indeed. The print itself is decent looking—hardly immaculate but not awful, either, considering its age—with some grain issues a constant throughout. Colors, however, defer some of the other minor presentation woes by appearing refreshingly vibrant for a 26-year-old film.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 here, though it represents one of those only mildly successful attempts at juicing up what was originally a 2.0 mono track. I do heap piles of kudos on Universal for even going that route, but the presentation remains a mostly front-centric mix, a bit on the flat side, but delivering clear, discernible dialogue throughout.

French and Spanish 2.0 mono tracks are also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Big Lebowski:SE, The Wedding Date, Father of the Pride: The Complete Series, Northern Exposure
Production Notes
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Don't come to this anniversary release looking for any fresh input from Carl Reiner or Steve Martin, because you won't find it. I guess the real reason to welcome this version is the anamorphic widescreen transfer, so let's just run with that and be happy.

What Universal has provided here is frothy, with the Learn to Play "Tonight You Belong to Me" segment particularly odd. This is the tune Steve Martin's character croons while strumming a ukulele as he is wooing Bernadette Peters, and here we get quick instructions on how to actually tune our own ukes to the key of D. Next up is a lesson (02m:51s) featuring the uniquely charming Ukulele Gal, and then options to either Play Along with the Jerk (01m:25s)—as in the scene from the film—or the retro-kitschy Play Along with Ukulele Gal (01m:58s). It seems like a strange part of The Jerk to isolate as a supplement, but maybe that's just me.

The one moderate saving grace is The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova (04m:22s), a variation on the original cat juggling gag, this time featuring such other horrendous acts as fish teasing and plant abusing. This isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but it's cute, though at 4 and a half minutes it beats the proverbial dead horse a bit.

A theatrical trailer and 19 short paragraph screens containing production notes is also included.

The disc is cut into 16 chapters, with optional subtitles in English, Spanish or French.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

This is a certifiable Steve Martin classic, finally issued in anamorphic widescreen, and at a modest price to boot. The extras on this anniversary edition are essentially nonexistent, but it's such a great comedy it shouldn't matter.

Highly recommended.


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