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DVD Review HTF Review #2: The Jerk - 26th Anniversary Edition (1 Viewer)

Jason Perez

Second Unit
Jul 6, 2003

The Jerk - 26th Anniversary Edition

Year: 1979
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Captions: English
Subtitles: French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; French and Spanish - Monaural

Release Date:
July 26th, 2005

Since it was his first starring role, I suppose it can be argued that Steve Martin’s appearance in The Jerk catapulted him to “movie-star” status, but he was hardly an unknown when the film hit theaters. Indeed, Martin had a highly successful stand-up show, was a featured performer on “Saturday Night Live”, which was actually funny enough to watch once upon a time, and even saw some success as a writer – he also co-wrote the screenplay for this film.

That success notwithstanding, the ambitious comic had his eye on the big screen, and The Jerk proved the perfect vehicle to make him a bankable star. In the film, Steve was directed by renowned filmmaker Carl Reiner, father of actor/director Rob Reiner, who really showcased his ability to play a silly, unorthodox character with an impressive level of commitment rarely seen in such films. I’ll go into more detail on Steve Martin’s terrific performance later, but I would like to set the stage by briefly outlining the story, just in case you have managed to avoid this film completely in the more than quarter century since its release.

Basically, The Jerk chronicles the strange tale of Navin Johnson (Martin), an odd but likeable Caucasian man raised by a family of African-American sharecroppers that found him abandoned on their doorstep as a baby. As the story begins, we see that Navin lacks many of the skills and abilities – such as a sense of rhythm - the rest of his adopted family members possess. Thus, despite an intense desire/effort to do so, Navin has trouble fitting in, which troubles him greatly.

Early on, we also learn that Navin is both a little “slow” and incredibly naïve. For instance, it has never dawned on Navin that his family might have adopted him, even though his skill set, personality, and physical appearance are distinctly different from theirs. Ironically, just as the only mother and father he has ever known finally break this news to him; Navin finds the rhythm he had heretofore been missing - in a most unlikely way! At this point, Navin makes the command decision to explore the world outside of his family circle, and sets out on his trek toward self-discovery with boyish energy and enthusiasm!

In the early stages of his trip, Navin bounces from job to job in different cities, experiencing things he could not possibly have imagined before his journey began. He also encounters an interesting menagerie of characters, some friendly and some looking to take advantage of his rather limited street smarts. Later, however, fortune does smile on kind-hearted Navin, as he meets and falls in love with a similarly unusual woman named Marie (Bernadette Peters), and then realizes tremendous financial success as an inventor.

Unfortunately, fortune is fickle, and life is not to be a bowl of cherries for good ol’ Navin. You see, after the nifty Opti-grab device he develops, which is of immense help to folks who wear glasses, becomes popular and affords him a luxurious lifestyle, Mr. Johnson learns just how quickly an empire can crumble. As his downward spiral back to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder continues, Navin loses much of what he had gained and returns back to his roots, “a poor black child” once more.

Now I must apologize, as I know this isn’t the most detailed plot outline, but the film’s story is a simple one – a rags-to-riches and back again tale – which allows Steve Martin some latitude to do what he does best. As such, I am hesitant to get into the story in detail, for fear of spoiling any of what will probably be a wonderful viewing experience for most of you who have not yet seen The Jerk. There is much more to say about the film though, so please indulge me for a few minutes – you didn’t think you would get off that easy did you! :)

First and foremost, Carl Reiner did a very good job at the helm, by keeping things moving at a pretty brisk clip, and by skillfully orchestrating the vast majority of the film’s sight gags and jokes. That being said, The Jerk really belongs to Steve Martin. The entertainer is in fine form here, employing an array of comedy styles, ranging from wild slapstick to subtle verbal humor, to cobble together a funny, winning performance dripping with energy, charisma, over-the-top silliness, and good old-fashioned charm.

Better still, Martin never seems as if he has to “beg” for the audience to laugh. To be sure, not every joke works, but he is usually able to obtain the desired effect in a smooth, natural fashion by just playing his role without any unnecessary theatrics or sly winks at the camera. In the hands of a less gifted comedian/actor, the dimwitted, goofy Navin Johnson could have been a real one-dimensional character, and undermined the The Jerk. Thanks to Steve Martin, however, there are more layers to the character than one might initially expect, and it is hard not to end up rooting for the likeable, well-meaning numbskull!

Though Steve Martin’s star shines brightest, the stellar supporting cast also played an important role in making The Jerk such a comical, enduring motion picture experience. This is particularly true of Bernadette Peters, who is great as Marie. It is a real shame that she doesn’t seem to get as much work as she deserves (I believe I said the same thing after seeing It Runs In The Family). She is especially endearing in the wonderful and yet strange courtship scenes, expertly playing off of Steve Martin.

Other supporting players, including the legendary Jackie Mason also shine in their limited amount of screen time. In fact, I think the quality of their work not only enhances Steve Martin’s performance, but also lends some credibility to the truly off-the-wall and improbable environment “The Jerk” inhabits.

In closing, although I have to consider that The Jerk’s offbeat brand of humor may put a small percentage of those discovering it for the first time off, I think the odds are much better that most of you will really enjoy watching this film. Simply put, there are valid reasons why The Jerk occupies the number 89 spot on the American Film Institute’s list of America's 100 Funniest Movies, as the production notes state. It may be a weird tale, but the rags-to-riches-to-rags journey of that “poor black child” named Navin Johnson is every bit as ridiculous, funny, and infectious as it was the first time I watched it as a child. If you haven’t already seen The Jerk, I urge you to give it a look…and if you have, another viewing certainly couldn’t hurt!

Finally, the travesty of a DVD that The Jerk was previously released on in a “full frame” aspect ratio :angry: can be placed right where it belongs – into a recycling bin (we wouldn’t want to burden our landfills, would we)! Yes friends, at long last we can enjoy The Jerk in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1) in our very own homes, enhanced for widescreen displays to boot! And happily, with a few exceptions, the film not only looks pretty good by current standards, but is easily the best it has looked on home video to date.

We’ll begin with colors, which are presented delicately and without any noteworthy flaws. Sure, they retain a slightly washed out look they always have, but to my eyes primary shades even appear a touch more vibrant than they did on the previous DVD release. Black level and fine detail are also solid, leading to pleasing - but not quite spectacular - shadow delineation, image depth, and definition.

Unfortunately, there is also a fair amount of edge enhancement present, which results in an annoying halo/ringing effects throughout the feature. As I suspect is the case with many of you, edge enhancement is a pet peeve of mine, and I am sad to say that it is applied liberally enough in this case to detract from the viewing experience in a few instances, particularly in the earlier stages of the picture.

By today’s standards, the image also looks a little “dirty”, exhibiting quite a bit of grain or minor print damage at times, although it never reaches the point of being what I would consider a major distraction. It is probably worth noting that this level of grain is undoubtedly more a function of the techniques, available technology, and storage media used to record the film, than anything Universal did in bringing the film to DVD (again), but I was hoping for a cleaner presentation nonetheless.

So, where does that leave us? Well, unquestionably, folks like me, who grew up with this film on television, a VHS, and the disgraceful “full frame” DVD will notice a significant improvement in overall image quality, but there are still a few problems I wish had been ironed out. All in all though, I think these issues are balanced out by the fact that this 26th Anniversary Edition DVD features The Jerk’s original aspect ratio (1.85:1), which is the way it was meant to be seen!

Now that I think about it, it may take me some time to get used to the film’s proper aspect ratio, as I have seen it so many times the other way! I guess I’ll just have to give it a couple more spins to remove any memory of the full screen version!!! ;)

Unlike most DVD releases these days, there are no options available here for English speakers – you’ll get a brand spankin’ new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix whether you want it or not! Incidentally, for those of you who would prefer to hear the film in French or Spanish, there are monaural soundtracks available.

Personally, although I find this new mix to be solid all around, it is really nothing to get overly excited about, especially since I can’t see how The Jerk’s relatively sparse soundtrack was crying out for a surround mix. Basically, this is one of the rare instances that I was just fine with the monaural track!

Oh well, the remix is what we’ve been given, so let’s kick the tires! After listening intently, I am glad to report that characters’ speech is presented cleanly, without any audible distractions like hissing or sibilance, and that frequency response is also respectable. Further, although the soundstage never really opens up too much, both sound effects and the score are reproduced effectively, especially the tune “Tonight You Belong To Me”, which Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing over a lightly strummed ukulele. As for the rears and the sub, well you will probably barely notice their presence, but again, it really was not all that necessary to press them into service much in this particular case.

Once again, I am not sure The Jerk really needed a surround mix, and this one is not exactly dynamic, but I am not going to judge this remix too harshly simply because the engineers did not create an aggressive mix where one was not called for. While it may not excel in any one area, my bottom line is that it reproduces the source material in a satisfactory manner and exhibits a nice sense of balance, which warrants a favorable rating by my standards.


Learn How To Play “Tonight You Belong To Me” - Ukulele Lesson
While it may tie in with the film to a degree, I sincerely doubt that 99 percent of those who buy this DVD are going to give a rat’s rear about this lesson, which teaches viewers to play “Tonight Belongs to Me” on the ukulele, and then gives them the opportunity to play along with either the instructor or “The Jerk”. Trust me, whatever novelty there is here wears off real quick! If you are interested, all of the components of this lesson run for just under 7 minutes.

The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova
This featurette, which runs for just under 4 ½-minutes is even more bizarre than the ukulele lesson, although it does contain a second or two of amusing material. A quick note to those hyper-sensitive souls who cannot watch a houseplant being subjected to verbal abuse, stay away from these “lost filmstrips”!!!

Production Notes
There are several pages of text included, which chronicle Steve Martin’s early career, his interaction with Carl Reiner on The Jerk, writing the script, and anecdotes from the set, among other things. It is mildly interesting to review these pages, but I sincerely doubt there is not too much detail in them, and probably not much that hardcore fans of the film haven’t already heard before.

The theatrical trailer for The Jerk, which runs for 2 ½-minutes, is included.

Promotional Materials
The disc begins with skippable trailers for the DVD releases The Big Lebowski: SE, The Wedding Date, Father of the Pride, and Northern Exposure: Seasons 1 - 3.


(on a five-point scale)
Film: :star: :star: :star: :star: 1/2
Video: :star: :star: :star: 1/2
Audio: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Extras: :star: 1/2
Overall: :star: :star: :star: 1/2

At the risk of repeating myself, though I believe offbeat humor in The Jerk may put a small percentage of first-time viewers off, the vast majority of those in said group should really enjoy this movie. There are many reasons for my opinion, not the least of which are: sound direction by Carl Reiner, a winning performance by Steve Martin, ingenious sight gags, and good work by the supporting actors, including Bernadette Peters.

It may be a weird trip, but the journey of that “poor black child” named Navin Johnson is just as side-splittingly funny as it was the first time I watched it many years ago. If you have somehow managed to avoid seeing The Jerk, I highly recommend it, as it is a very funny movie that features some of Steve Martin’s most inspired work.

Sadly, however, this Anniversary Edition DVD release leaves me a bit less than inspired. More specifically, in donning my DVD reviewer’s objectivity hat, and trying to forget how much I really like The Jerk, I have to say that as a “Special Edition” DVD, this release is disappointing. The main draws are obvious – this is a great movie, finally presented in its theatrical aspect ratio, and with a retooled surround mix – and still make the DVD worth picking up.

The extras, on the ther hand, are not only extremely brief, but also utterly worthless! It also it seems to me as though very little effort went into them, which really bothers me. I would expect such a feeble effort for a lesser film, but for a film regarded as one of the funniest of all time, this group of bonus features is downright disrespectful!

In closing, as much as it pains me to support such a lackluster effort, a recommendation to purchase this disc is a no-brainer, simply because it rectifies the previously released DVD’s woeful “full frame” image transfer. Unfortunately, the overall package still reeks of laziness, and I cannot help but imagine that fans of the film will be as angry as I was to see that there are no extras of substance on board. I guess I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that we’ll get something like a featurette or a commentary track on whatever unorthodox anniversary Universal decides is right for a triple dip of The Jerk… :frowning:

Stay tuned…


Second Unit
Jul 23, 2005
Hilariously bizarre movie!!! The extras were pretty lame, especially that lesson thing.

The Carlos clips were ridiculous, you have to see it to believe! ;)

It's worth at least a rental if you've never seen the film.


Stunt Coordinator
Jan 24, 2005
The best thing about this dvd is the ukelele lesson, given by the fantastic and astounding Ms. Janet Klein! You can hear more of the wonderful Ms. Klein at her website: http://www.janetklein.com/ . Check it out, yo!!!!!!!!!!

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