The story of Navin R. Johnson is a warped take on the Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches, a journey from the poorhouse to the penthouse. Along his journey, the oblivious Odysseus traverses through the tapestry of the American landscape and psyche. There are kind people, cruel people, and just plain crazy people. Navin R. Johnson’s journey through the American Dream is the story of the comedy classic The Jerk, which is now available on a new all-encompassing special edition from Shout! Factory.
More so than any other genre, it’s difficult to make a comedy that endures. Sensibilities change and what was once funny can become outdated and offensive. It’s hard to think of a movie that could still play well today that opens with its white male star proclaiming that he was born “a poor black child,” and yet that’s just what The Jerk does. The comedy directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin manages to avoid punching down and playing like a regressive screed masquerading as comedy. The Jerk holds up because it’s about America through the figure of an incredibly lucky dope who bumbles his way to the top only to come tumbling down.
Navin’s humble beginnings in the Deep South with his loving mother (Mabel King) and father (Richard Wand). The family sings together on the porch (blues legends Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee handle guitar and harmonica) as Navin struggles to find the beat, clapping awkwardly offbeat. The joke is purely centered on Navin and his lacking rhythm as well as his complete obliviousness as to his situation. He’s unaware that he’s adopted because he’s been raised in loving household. Once Navin hears soft, innocuous music on the radio – music too tame for Glenn Miller – the dolt discovers his sense of rhythm, and through snapping his fingers with the music realizes there’s a whole world out there for exploring. After a quick lesson on the difference between shit and Shinola, Navin is ready to leave home and explore the great unknown.
One of the defining traits of Navin Johnson is how he takes everyone at their word. When he arrives at the gas station owned by Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason), he’s asked if he wants to be the President of Texaco Oil; it’s an opportunity to take a low-wage job but to Navin it’s an offer made in earnest. The same goes for when Navin meets his dog. The pooch barks away and like someone who has seen too many episodes of Lassie, Navin is convinced that he’s encountered a hero dog that is out to save everyone from a fire. The rooms clear as Navin loudly proclaims there’s a fire. There’s no fire and one resident tells the young man that he shouldn’t name his dog Lifesaver, he should name him Shithead. From that point forward, Navin is accompanied by his beloved dog Shithead.
While working his first job at Hartounian’s Gas Station, Navin has a two encounters that will change his life forever. The first is an encounter with Stan Fox (Bill Macy), a salesman of novelties with glasses that continually slip off his face. With a bit of ingenuity, Navin creates a modification that will revolutionize the eyewear industry only he doesn’t know it yet. Just as his first encounter with fate concludes, fate comes into his life once again in the form of a madman (M. Emmett Walsh) who is out to assassinate the gas station clerk for no other reason than his stupid name was in the phonebook. In an absolutely hilarious scene that also highlights the earnestness which Navin approaches every situation, he becomes convinced that the would-be assassin has a vendetta against cans. “He hates these cans,” Navin yells, once again oblivious to what’s staring him right in the face.
Fleeing a barrage of gunfire takes Navin to his next stop in life, working at a carnival. It’s there that Navin has his first sexual encounter motorcycle daredevil Patty (Caitlin Adams) and learns about capitalism, surmising “It’s a profit deal!” It’s while working there that Navin will meet the love of his life, Marie (Bernadette Peters). She’s a perfect match for Navin. She’s a naïve sweetheart with an equal ability to take matters at face value. However, personal doubts creep in her mind and she leaves him just as his life is about to change forever.
Suddenly, Navin’s eyeglass modifications have become a national sensation and now the magnificent moron has been flung into the upper class of American life. He gets Marie back and begins to live in a posh mansion with a private disco and clam-shaped bathtub. In another hilarious reflection of America that hasn’t diluted in over 40 years, Navin and Marie find themselves living the high life as their wealth has instantly made them connoisseurs of the finer things. The couple is immediately drawn towards gawdy possessions, lessons in frivolous talents, and philanthropy for ridiculous causes – all of which makes them virtually indistinguishable than any Silicon Valley billionaire today. Then it all comes crashing down as Navin’s invention – which wasn’t even tested on prisoners – causes people to go cross-eyed, leading to a lawsuit that depletes Navin’s fortune and returns him to his impoverished roots. It’s a journey through Americana with dreams coming true and hopes dashed, which after all of the love and loss takes Navin back to the porch to sing with his family.
The new Shout! Factory edition of The Jerk features a sparkling 2K transfer of the film, ensuring it has never looked better. Two interview segments are the crown jewels of this edition. A conversation between comedy legends Steve Martin and Carl Reiner is hilarious and illuminating, as they share anecdotes about the film from its development through production. It’s a treat for comedy fans to see these two discuss their craft and this particular classic. The other conversation is between screenwriter Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias who share other surprising tales about the genesis of The Jerk, including the brief time when legendary director Mike Nichols was attached. Like any good special edition, these bonus features take you deeper into the movie and how making something that endures is like capturing lightning in a bottle.
The Jerk endures not only because it’s absolutely hilarious but because it’s a perfect reflection of America. Within Navin R. Johnson is America’s better angels and darker demons; the fulfilled hopes and dashed dreams of an imperfect nation incapable of seeing its failings through a combination of arrogance and ignorance. When everything starts to crumble and I look around and the thing that I need, I don’t need anything except this ashtray, this paddle game, this remote control, and this Shout! Factory 40th anniversary edition of The Jerk. That’s all I need.
A comedy classic that is just as funny as when it debuted, The Jerk is a warped American odyssey that gets a great new special edition from Shout! Factory. That’s all I need.