The Jerk (1979)

(On Cable TV, July 2017) My history of film comedy is shaky, but if I recall correctly, The Jerk was an early example of the idiot-protagonist subgenre, especially as executed as a continuous series of gags. Steve Martin was trying to broaden his appeal beyond stand-up comedy at the time, but the film he wrote ended up reflecting his gag-a-minute sensibilities, with a generous side dish of absurdity. Does it still work? Well, sort-of: While comedy audiences today are far more used to rapid-fire idiot comedies (Will Ferrell’s career comes to mind), The Jerk acts as a prototype of the form and, as such, can feel a bit slack compared to later examples. Its eagerness to throw everything on-screen to see what sticks can feel desperate, and it does have strange ideas about pacing that occasionally stop the film dead. It’s amusing more than funny (although I couldn’t help but laugh audibly at the kitten-juggling moment, probably helped along by the fact that I was caring for a kitten at the time) but it does have a good-natured tone that’s hard to resist even today. Steve Martin is irreplaceable as the title character, and it’s always nice to see Bernadette Peters going for laughs in her prime. The Jerk appealed to a specific kind of viewer back then (i.e.; Steve Martin fans) and while that audience may have grown since then, it’s still not a comedy for everyone. I found the details and throwaway gags funnier than the overall story, but that’s to be expected from a quasi-slapstick comedy.

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