The Trylon is proud to present the two finest collaborations between auteur Carl Reiner and his muse, actor Steve Martin. We present The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid this weekend only, a rare cinematic event that will be remembered with fondness for years to come…
Review of The Jerk by would-be Trylon regular Aaron Vehling.
You remember the one about the white man who was born a poor black child? In the 1979 Carl Reiner film The Jerk, Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, is a white man in his 30s who learns on his birthday that he is in fact not the biological child of his black sharecropper parents. He lives with a huge family in a shack in rural Mississippi. They are happy—the film opens with the family singing the folk song “Pick a Bale of Cotton” on Navin’s birthday, all full of vivaciousness on their decrepit porch. Navin, however, has no rhythm. To boot, his birthday dinner is made up of his favorites: a sandwich heavy with mayonnaise and a Tab cola. Yet Navin does not see himself as white; just as a black man with a skin color different from that of his family.
The Jerk is race humor, but it never mines controversy for laughs. There’s no Richard Pryoresque stereotype challenges here: no thugs, no drugs, and no quips in the vein of “Where the white women at?” And there’s also no blackface. Martin plays Navin simply as a naive man-child who identifies as black because he knows nothing else. (Unfortunately, Martin would take on a sort-of-blackface in the execrable Bringing Down the House in 2003, co-starring with Queen Latifah, but let’s not hold that against him.) The Jerk is more of the classic ugly-duckling circumstance.
When Navin learns of his true provenance—that a white family left his infant self on the Johnsons’ doorstep—he is saddened. He asks his mother, “You mean I’m gonna stay this color?” His mother hugs him and replies, “I’d love you even if you were the color of a baboon’s ass!” But it also makes sense to him: Navin has never fit in fully with his family. And when he hears on the radio some particularly whitebread jazz broadcasted from St. Louis, he learns that he does have rhythm, which he takes as a sign that he needs to leave the nest and become “somebody.” His family has two pieces of advice for him: “The Lord loves a working man,” and “Don’t trust Whitey!”
This turns the ugly-duckling story into a fish-out-of-water tale that takes Navin from living at a gas station run by Jackie Mason to being a carny, all while finding the love of a Joan Jett-style stunt motorcyclist, and finally marrying Marie, played by the eminently adorable and profoundly talented Bernadette Peters.
During this time, an invention he had shared with a gas station customer—a device that rests on the nose and holds glasses on one’s face—becomes nationally popular, providing Navin with millions of dollars of income. He gets his woman, an opulent lifestyle, and national fame. It appears that leaving the farm was worth it.
But this was a rags-to-riches experience built on a house of cards, like so much of what we would consider the American Dream. Soon enough, Navin loses a $10 million class-action lawsuit brought by Carl Reiner (playing himself), who alleges that Navin’s ingenious device leaves one cross-eyed. A cross-eyed judge and jury agree, and Navin loses everything, including his wife.
So The Jerk seems to end as it began: with the homeless Navin telling his story from a stoop somewhere in Los Angeles. I won’t spoil it, but it would not shock anyone to say that the film ties up the story in a heartwarming way.
The takeaway from Martin’s debut should be that The Jerk is downright hilarious, but it is also a fascinating, and surprisingly contemporary, look at race relations and economic mobility in the United States.
Aaron Vehling is a former journalist and current communications professional who loves the music of Johnny Jewel and the films of Lars von Trier. Though he’s from Longfellow, Minneapolis, he now lives in Harlem, New York, on the same block as the mansion from The Royal Tenenbaums.
The Jerk screens Friday at 7:00, Saturday at 9:00, and Sunday at 7:00. Purchase tickets here. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid shows Friday at 9:00, Saturday at 7:00, and Sunday at 5:00. Purchase tickets here.