Revisiting Carl Reiner's The Jerk.
Updated: Jul 7
by Alexander Deley
While comedy as a rule is said to age poorly, (a function of changing cultural norms and generational differences), sometimes truly transcendent comedies can take on further importance and relevance as the years go by. One of these rare cases can be seen in Carl Reiner’s 1979 Steve Martin-vehicle, The Jerk.
Following Reiner’s passing earlier this week at the age of 98 many people are watching and thinking about his films and Reiner’s lasting cultural legacy as a comedic artist. The Jerk stands at the pinnacle of Reiner’s output and its importance, both as a comedy film, and as a mildly subversive attack on racism, should not be understated.
Despite its age, The Jerk, in some ways is a film that can tell us as much about today as the era in which it was made. The film was a collaboration between Reiner with the actor Steve Martin, who stars in the film and had a hand in writing it(he co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb, who co-wrote the Jaws screenplay with Peter Benchley).
It helped to both cement Martin’s status as a box office drawn and to refine the character he would play throughout his career, that of the holy idiot savant. Throughout the film, Martin’s character, Navin, witlessly stumbles through one situation to the next, going from rags to riches and bag to rags almost by complete accident.
One would assume that, with changing sensibilities and shifts in what is collectively viewed as acceptable in anti-racist discourse over the last 40 years, the film’s central joke: namely that
Navin is a middle aged white man who somehow grows up in a black family in rural Mississippi would age poorly. Instead, the film does not belabor the absurdity of the set-up, while still managing to mine from it a deep vein of comedy from it.
While Navin’s whole frame of reference is as a “poor black child”, he inexplicably retains stereotypical white sensibilities, including loving white bread, mayonnaise and twinkies and having no real sense of rhythm. Navin is an idiot, but he is an idiot in an explicitly and unmistakably culturally white way.
The black family that Navin belongs to, in contrast to Navin’s imbecility, are repeatedly shown to be wise, judicious, resourceful, good-humored, caring and talented people. Indeed, they are poor, but one gets the sense from the film that they are so as a result of structural inequity and through no failings of their own. They impart to Navin useful life advise, love and accommodate
him despite his foolishness, and where Navin’s sudden accidental wealth sees him foolishly squander it, the small amounts that Navin sends home each month throughout the film, are wisely invested by the family patriarch allowing the family to becoming independently wealthy of their own accord.
The film also opens with an incredible performance from the great blues men, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. This performance, while emphasizing Navin’s humble upbringing, also gives viewers the sense that these are people that while rural and poor, they are far more intelligent
and artistically sophisticated than their idiot son. This is true even if the whole family (including Navin) is initially seen dancing a ho-down.
The film weds its jokes with a subtle, just below the surface, form of social commentary.
Part of Navin’s stupidity is a total lack of street smarts – a naiveté that his family is in no way responsible for. Indeed, they provide him with some key parting advise: “The Lord loves a working man” and “never trust Whitey”, edicts that long-oppressed black people of every era have had to live by. The seeming absurdity of delivering the remark to Navin, who absurdly is
white, ends up paying off in spades when most of the trouble that Navin gets himself into throughout the film are a result of his tendency to trust the wrong people.
Viewed today, The Jerk was ahead of its time. It may also, in its quiet and slightly buffoonish way, be a perfect film to accompany our current moment in America. Trapped as we are in a moment of upheaval driven by the twin phenomena of the COVID-19 Pandemic and widespread protests against police brutality that rose up following the brutal killing of George Floyd, we can see both of these pressing issues present in The Jerk. The anti-racism of the film reminds us of the day-to-day injustices experienced by black people that so many have taken to the street to fight against, while Navin’s antics make light of the seeming endless foolishness of those refusing to abide by scientific advice, convinced instead by their own ignorant impulses.
The latter part of the film, where Navin becomes rich (thanks to an invention of his which ends up having a terrible side-effect on users) and gives himself over to a garish, selfish, nouvelle-richesse life of luxury - despite ominous signs of calamity bearing down like a freight train - also has a contemporary allegory. This character will undoubtedly remind many viewers of the
current occupant of the White House, a man who gives in to his worst impulses and generally has more wealth than sense.
The Jerk is a film that still offers plenty of bite. With Carl Reiner now gone, a contemporary viewing of the film reveals new layers of mirth for people of all generations to revel in.