The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review: A Movie Star Is Born

The Jerk came out in 1978 when Steve Martin was a king of comedy. He had moved on from small clubs and was now selling out arenas like a rock star. He appeared so often and was so good on Saturday Night Live he was considered an unofficial cast member by some viewers. “King Tut” was a hit single off his Grammy-winning comedy album, A Wild and Crazy Guy. He even had a best-selling book, The Cruel Shoes. He was the King of All Media before Howard Stern.

The Jerk was his first-starring feature role. He had previously had tiny roles in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Muppet Movie, and was nominated for an Oscar for his 1977 short film, The Absent-Minded Waiter. It tells the “rags to riches to rags” story of Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin), a “typical bastard” to some. When the film opens, Navin is homeless and he tells the viewer “an old story, one you’ve probably heard before.” When he begins with “I was born a poor black child,” an obvious incongruity, you can tell that this is a comedy where the silly is normal and that anything can happen.

Navin had always felt different growing up with his family in Mississippi. One night after listening to the Sunday night gospel hour, the radio changes formats and plays “music in a mellow mood.” It speaks to something inside Navin. He realizes there’s a whole world out there to discover, so he packs up his belongings and begins hitchhiking.

Navin works a few odd jobs, gas station attendant, carnival weight-guesser, miniature-train engineer, before striking it rich with his invention of the Opti-Grab, a device that keeps eyeglasses from slipping. He makes friends along the way: his trusted dog, named “Lifesaver” when it informs Navin in the middle of the night that the hotel is on fire, quickly renamed by an angry hotel guest (sounding like director Carl Reiner) when it turns out there is no fire; daredevil motorcycle rider Patty, who shows Navin what his “special purpose” is for; and Marie (Bernadette Peters), the cornet-playing cosmetologist, who becomes the love of his life. He loses everything when he is hit with a class-action lawsuit, except for some household items, like thermos, which is why he’s in such rough shape when the movie opens.

The video comes from a new remaster from a 2K transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The colors appear in strong hues. The earth tones are lush at Navin’s childhood home, as his world expands so does the film’s palette. Blacks are inky, though there’s a bit of crush when Navin wears his black jacket on the beach at night. Whites, like his gas-attendant suit, are bright. The image delivers depth, a sharp focus, solid contrast, and fine texture detail. Film grain is apparent, and the picture is clean.

The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The dialogue comes through clear for the most part. Jack Elliot’s score can be heard in the surrounds, along with slight ambiance. Some times, the music gets a little too loud in the mix and diminishes the dialogue, like during the hotel-evacuation scene.

There are new Special Features for this Shout Select release are:

  • Conversation with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner (HD, 27 min) – The pair talk about the film together. Throughout, Reiner praises Martin, who has to help correct Reiner’s memories.
  • Conversation with Co-Writers Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias (HD, 25 min) – They are interviewed together, but wrote the script with Martin separately, Gottlieb first. Interesting tidbit that Mike Nichols almost directed The Jerk but producer David V. Picker didnt want to wait for him to finish another picture.

Previously released extras are:

  • “Learn to Play ‘You Belong To Me'” (SD, 7 min) – The segment shows finger placement for the ukelele and even allows tuning of the instrument before playing along with the Ukulele Girl, portrayed by Janet Klein, or the sequence from the film.
  • “The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova” (4 min) – Shot to resemble the film’s cat-juggling sequence, the new south-of-the-border atrocities are Fish Teasing; Plant Abusing, which was so vile it had to be censored; and Pet Dressing.
  • Three trailers (6 min) and Five Radio Spots (3 min) with announcer Gary Owens.

The Jerk still holds up after 40 years. There’s a lot of comedy throughout. It is fun and goofy and has a sweetness to it that comes out of Martin’s portrayal of Navin. It is that component that is missing from the gross-out, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited comedies of today. The film has a lot of great sight gags that would work well in a silent film, like when Navin tries to foil the credit card thieves from escaping. Shout Select’s Blu-ray offers a pleasing visual HD experience, satisfactory audio considering the limitations of the source, and two great new extras.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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