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Reviewing a comedy can be a tricky business, because the question of whether the comedy was "good" or "bad" depends almost entirely upon whether or not the reviewer was amused. Laughter is quite often an involuntary reaction: If I laugh at something and you don't, no amount of my logic is going to convince you that it was funny. 

And so when I say that “The Jerk,” the first major film starring Steve Martin , was not an amusing comedy, I should probably also report that a lot of the people who went to the sneak preview laughed all the way through it. (Others booed—but there you are.)

I can report, however, why I didn't find “The Jerk” very funny. It began to grind on me right at the beginning because it was depending on whats rather than whys for its laughs. I'll explain. It seems to me that there are two basic approaches to any kind of comedy, and in a burst of oversimplification I'll call them the Funny Hat and the Funny Logic approaches. The difference is elementary: In the first, we're supposed to laugh because the comic is wearing the funny hat, and in the second it's funny because of his reasons for wearing the funny hat.

You may have guessed by now that I prefer the Funny Logic approach, and that “The Jerk” is almost entirely a movie of Funny Hats. An example, from the film's opening premise: Steve Martin has been raised as a member of a family of poor black Southern sharecroppers, and, although he is white, it has never occurred to him that he might be adopted. His life is happy until the day he learns the truth, and is sent out into the world to earn his way. He hits the road wearing a World War II bomber's helmet and goggles. 

OK. “The Jerk” wants us to laugh at this material just at the most basic level. Martin is white and thinks the blacks are his parents, ha, ha. He wears a funny hat when he hits the road, ho, ho. Those are the whats. What about the whys? Why is he wearing the goggles? So we will laugh. There's no plot point to be made, and nothing is being said about his character—except, of course, that he's a jerk.

By way of comparison, Mel Brooks' " The Producers " (1968) opens in the office of theatrical producer Zero Mostel , who is deeply involved in the inflamed sexual fantasies of a little old lady he hopes will invest in one of his plays. The old lady wants to pretend she's a helpless little milkmaid, and that Mostel is a brawny stable lad who is about to ravish her. They both look absurd while they're playing their roles, of course, and that's the what. But the why—the reasons why Mostel feels he must behave in this ridiculous way, and keep a straight face while he's doing it makes the scene hilarious. The twisted logic beneath the surface—the cockamamie human motives we can identify with—make it comedy instead of a gag.

“The Jerk” is all gags and very little comedy. After Martin hits the road, he has a series of adventures as a gas pump jockey, a weight-guesser in a sideshow, a hapless lover of Bernadette Peters , an inventor of a gadget to keep your eyeglasses from falling down. All of these gag situations are milked for one-time laughs. They don't grow out of his character, or contribute to it.

We laugh at the eyeglass invention because it looks funny when people wear it; it's symbolically a Funny Hat, ho, ho. But nothing is done with it on a character level. And “The Jerk” eventually becomes aggressive and almost hostile in the way it lobs one Funny Hat after another at us: We get the sense at times that the cast and crew arrived at a location, found the script bankrupt of real laughs, and started looking around for funny props.

There's another sense in which “The Jerk” made me uncomfortable. There's a smarmy undercurrent in this movie that seems to imply that Steve Martin may be playing a jerk, but that we all know what a cool guy he is. Well, if you're going to play a jerk, play one as if you think you are one, or you might wind up looking like a jerk.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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The Jerk (1979)

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Classic Steve Martin comedy with frequent profanity.

The Jerk Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

Love and family are far more important than materi

As the film is a raw comedy, the characters aren't

A crazed gunman points a rifle and scope at Navin

A domineering motorcycle daredevil woman seduces N

Frequent profanity: "s--t," "ass," "bastard," "god

In the beginning of the movie, Navin is sitting ou

Parents need to know that The Jerk is a 1979 Steve Martin comedy that is -- while certainly one of Martin's best and best-loved movies -- filled with frequent profanity as well as the use of racial slurs. Although the use of racial slurs is used to heighten a scene in which mob goons are trying to keep…

Positive Messages

Love and family are far more important than material possessions. Although Navin is a "jerk" who is often oblivious to what's going on around him, he cares for his friends and family, even going so far as to send what money he can back home to his adopted family.

Positive Role Models

As the film is a raw comedy, the characters aren't really meant to be role models.

Violence & Scariness

A crazed gunman points a rifle and scope at Navin with intent to kill him. Patty hits Navin, and Marie punches her out. The wife of Navin's butler is executed by firing squad (not shown) as a penalty for an early bank withdrawal. Navin karate-chops three racist financial advisors and hurts his foot on one ("Iron Balls" McGinty). Within the film, the offense that is perceived as the most horrific is the juggling of kittens for fun and profit. Toward the end of the film, a sports car is shown losing control, driving off a cliff and exploding -- the result of a movie director becoming cross-eyed.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

A domineering motorcycle daredevil woman seduces Navin, and the camera shows her trailer bouncing up and down. She gets Navin's name tattooed on her rear end and makes a reference to "putting a rubber on it." Most of the sexuality is intimated, as when Navin is heard (from an exterior shot) saying, "This is like a ride." He writes home that he has discovered what his mother meant about his body part's "special purpose" and that he plans to have sex as often as possible.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

Frequent profanity: "s--t," "ass," "bastard," "goddamn." Toward the end of the movie, mafia goons refer to African Americans as "jungle bunnies" and use the "N" word, which inspires Navin to say that he also is an "N" word since he was raised by an African American family. Navin names his dog "S--thead." A young boy in an amusement park is shown in an extended scene wearing a T-shirt that reads "Bull S--t." Navin's first girlfriend calls his second girlfriend a "gash."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

In the beginning of the movie, Navin is sitting outside next to disheveled homeless men passed out with bottles of alcohol at their sides. Navin is given a bottle of booze from his adopted brother for his birthday. Characters are shown smoking cigarettes. A petty criminal in the backseat of a car is shown smoking a joint and offers it to Navin. Later in the movie, after Navin has become successful, he and his girlfriend are shown drinking wine in a fancy restaurant and then are surrounded by drinkers at a disco party. In his mansion, white and red wine are dispensed from twin water coolers.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Jerk is a 1979 Steve Martin comedy that is -- while certainly one of Martin's best and best-loved movies -- filled with frequent profanity as well as the use of racial slurs. Although the use of racial slurs is used to heighten a scene in which mob goons are trying to keep minorities out of real estate in more upscale neighborhoods, the nuance of the scene might be lost on younger viewers. In an extended scene, a young boy is shown wearing a T-shirt that reads "Bull S--t." There is some sexual innuendo: Navin's adopted mother had referred to his penis as having a "special purpose," and he finds out just what that means when he loses his virginity to a tough-acting, foul-mouthed motorcycle stuntwoman. The stuntwoman's trailer is shown from the outside rocking up and down. A crazed gunman is shown pursuing Navin with a rifle and scope, trying to kill him from a distance. Characters are shown drinking, smoking cigarettes, and, in one scene, smoking a joint. Although The Jerk is one of the all-time great comedies, the content and raw material for the comedy make this best for mature teens and older. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .

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Community Reviews

  • Parents say (4)
  • Kids say (19)

Based on 4 parent reviews

What's the Story?

Bumbling and naive Navin Johnson ( Steve Martin ) is raised in rural Mississippi by an African-American family. One day his adoptive parents finally break the news to him that he's actually white. On this same night, he hears elevator music on the radio for the first time, loves it, and decides he must leave home to learn about the world. He first goes to St. Louis -- where the radio station was based -- and finds a job pumping gas after being hired by a kindly boss ( Jackie Mason ). It is here that he invents a grip on eyeglasses that prevents them from slipping off the nose, and he presents it to a salesman. After he slowly settles into his job, he must leave after a crazed gunman tries to kill him after finding his name at random in the phonebook. He escapes and joins a carnival. At the carnival, he loses his virginity to a foul-mouthed and violent motorcycle stuntwoman but falls in love with a sweet woman named Marie ( Bernadette Peters ). It's at this time when the salesman returns with the news that Navin's invention is a lucrative success, and Navin is now a millionaire. But as success, wealth, and fame go to his head, things start to fall apart -- personally and financially -- and Navin must learn to realize what is really and truly important in this world.

Is It Any Good?

THE JERK is a classic Steve Martin vehicle -- and certainly the part he was born to play, especially in his late-'70s "wild and crazy guy" heyday. His one-of-a-kind quips and herky-jerky physical comedy are as much a joy to witness now as it was when this movie first came out. With comedy legend Carl Reiner directing and unforgettable supporting roles from Jackie Mason and Bernadette Peters, the result is an incredible mix of barbed satire, silly pratfalls, and, at its core, sweetness.

What's striking now is how well the movie has aged, placing it up there with Caddyshack and Airplane! as one of the great comedies from that era. Although some of the humor and content make this one problematic for kids, for mature teens and older folks, The Jerk is a comedy that improves with age and repeated viewings.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about how race is depicted in the movie. How is racial stereotyping explored in serious and not-so-serious ways?

How is Navin's naiveté revealed in the film, and how is this used as the primary source of the comedy?

What are some aspects of the movie that place it firmly in the late 1970s? If this movie were to be remade today, what do you think would be different about it?

Movie Details

  • In theaters : December 14, 1979
  • On DVD or streaming : July 26, 2005
  • Cast : Bernadette Peters , Jackie Mason , Steve Martin
  • Director : Carl Reiner
  • Inclusion Information : Female actors
  • Studio : Universal Pictures
  • Genre : Comedy
  • Run time : 94 minutes
  • MPAA rating : R
  • Last updated : August 31, 2023

Did we miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

Suggest an Update

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movie review the jerk

The Jerk (1979)

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The Jerk Reviews

movie review the jerk

The Jerk is uneven with a capital U.

Full Review | Jan 17, 2024

movie review the jerk

…doesn’t tick the boxes required of a rounded drama, but it’s hard to complain when so many gags land…

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Nov 30, 2023

movie review the jerk

Every scene offers something funny; every scene subverts expectations.

Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/4 | Feb 22, 2022

With comedy legend Carl Reiner directing and unforgettable supporting roles from Jackie Mason and Bernadette Peters, the result is an incredible mix of barbed satire, silly pratfalls, and, at its core, sweetness.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Mar 14, 2021

There are some heavenly jokes (especially the one where he makes a fortune inventing an absurd nose support for spectacles), and Martin is in best "manic" mode.

movie review the jerk

The verbal and conceptual gags... belong wholly to Martin's own brand of goofiness, and some of them are pretty funny.

Full Review | Mar 14, 2021

This is Martin at his absolute silliest, and therefore most brilliant.

Full Review | Original Score: 10/10 | Mar 14, 2021

movie review the jerk

The ingenious thing about this film is the way it can take serious situations and drastically interfere with them using an unexpected comedy device.

Full Review | Original Score: 9/10 | Aug 30, 2020

movie review the jerk

Carl Reiner, who has made his own contributions to comedy with Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Dick Van Dyke, does little to set a mood or rhythm or even an aura of good feeling that will carry audiences over the slow spots.

Full Review | Jul 19, 2019

movie review the jerk

It's just a strange little movie.

Full Review | Apr 12, 2019

movie review the jerk

Basically a series of skits that are barely tethered to a plot, this works better than expected, thanks primarily to Martin's infectious performance.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/4 | Dec 22, 2018

Bernadette Peters...nearly steals the show from Martin's over-the-top antics. It's sweet, and funny, and includes one of the most quotable exit lines in film history.

Full Review | Jun 8, 2018

Within ts limitations, The Jerk is a capably produced entertainment, seasoned by deft bit performances from several actors...

Full Review | Apr 24, 2018

movie review the jerk

An oddball odyssey so strange, filled with non-sequiturs so funny, and decorated by a romance so sweet, it was an inevitable star-maker.

Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Dec 12, 2012

92 minutes of direct and sweet surrealism

Full Review | Feb 13, 2010

Its humor is successful and unsuccessful by turns, and although Comedian Carl Reiner is the director, the instinct here is to give most of both credit and blame to Martin.

Full Review | Feb 2, 2009

Full Review | Original Score: 2/4 | Feb 2, 2009

movie review the jerk

An artless, non-stop barrage of off-the-wall situations, funny and unfunny jokes, generally effective and sometimes hilarious sight gags and bawdy non sequiturs.

If only he could have satisfied himself with this area of expertise, people would still talk of Steve Martin as one of the kings of comic cinema.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Feb 2, 2009

Full Review | Original Score: 2/5 | Feb 18, 2007

COMMENTS

  1. The Jerk movie review & film summary (1979) | Roger Ebert

    “The Jerk” is all gags and very little comedy. After Martin hits the road, he has a series of adventures as a gas pump jockey, a weight-guesser in a sideshow, a hapless lover of Bernadette Peters, an inventor of a gadget to keep your eyeglasses from falling down. All of these gag situations are milked for one-time laughs.

  2. The Jerk | Rotten Tomatoes

    Navin (Steve Martin) believes he was born a poor black child in Mississippi. He is, however, actually white. Upon figuring this out, he heads north to St. Louis to find himself.

  3. The Jerk Movie Review | Common Sense Media

    Classic Steve Martin comedy with frequent profanity. Read Common Sense Media's The Jerk review, age rating, and parents guide.

  4. The Jerk (1979) - IMDb

    The Jerk: Directed by Carl Reiner. With Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King. A simpleminded, sheltered country boy suddenly decides to leave his family home to experience life in the big city, where his naivete is both his best friend and his worst enemy.

  5. The Jerk (1979) - The Jerk (1979) - User Reviews - IMDb

    Steve Martin became an official movie star via a 1979 comedy that became an instant classic called The Jerk, a comedy that is silly, improbable, and constantly strains the boundaries of logic and continuity, but provides consistent laughs anyway.

  6. The Jerk - Movie Reviews | Rotten Tomatoes

    With comedy legend Carl Reiner directing and unforgettable supporting roles from Jackie Mason and Bernadette Peters, the result is an incredible mix of barbed satire, silly pratfalls,...

  7. The Jerk - Wikipedia

    The Jerk is a 1979 American comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias (from a story by Martin and Gottlieb). This was Martin's first starring role in a feature film. The film also features Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, Catlin Adams, Maurice Evans, and Jackie Mason.

  8. BBC - Films - review - The Jerk

    The Jerk (1979) Reviewed by Almar Haflidason. Updated 21 November 2000. Steve Martin's debut movie "The Jerk" as the lead went on to become the third biggest hit of 1979 in the US. This box...

  9. The Jerk - Metacritic

    The Jerk is a kind of post-psychedelic Jerry Lewis movie -- Broad, dirty and juvenile, but definitely hip to its own dumbness. Half the jokes fall flat on their face, but when they score they're laugh-out-loud funny.

  10. The Jerk (1979) — The Movie Database (TMDB)

    Overview. After discovering he's not really black like the rest of his family, likable dimwit Navin Johnson sets off on a hilarious misadventure that takes him from rags to riches and back again.