The Jerk is a 1979 comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. This was Steve Martin's first starring role in a feature film and was also written by him. An unsuccessful sequel, "The Jerk Too," was made for television with Mark Blankfield.
| Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
The film begins with Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin), a befuddled homeless simpleton, directly addressing the camera and telling his story. He is the adopted white son of African American sharecroppers, who grows to adulthood naïvely unaware of his obvious adoption. He stands out in his family not just because of his skin color, but also because of his utter lack of rhythm when his adopted family plays spirited blues music. He is teased (although gently) by his brothers for liking stereotypical white food and he admits to not really liking the blues music his family dance to. One night, he hears the staid and starchy Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra song called "Crazy Rhythm" on the radio and his feet spontaneously begin to move with the urge to dance; he sees this as a calling and decides to hitchhike to St. Louis, from where the song was broadcast. On the way, he stops at a motel, where a dog wakes him up by barking at his door. Navin thinks the dog is trying to warn of a fire and decides to name the dog "Lifesaver." He wakes up the other hotel guests to rescue them, but when everyone realizes it was a false alarm, one of the guests angrily suggests he call the dog "Shithead," which Navin takes literally.
Navin gets a job (and a place to sleep) at a gas station owned by Mr. Harry Hartounian (Jackie Mason). He's thrilled to find that he's listed in the local phone book, as his name is "in print" for the first time. Not long after, a gun-wielding lunatic (M. Emmet Walsh) randomly flips through the phone book and picks "Johnson, Navin R." as his next victim. As the madman watches through his rifle scope, waiting for a clear shot, Navin fixes the slippery glasses of a customer, Stan Fox (Bill Macy), by adding a handle and a nose brake. Fox offers to split the profits 50/50 with Navin if he can market the invention, then departs. Seizing his chance, the crazed sniper tries to kill Navin, but fails, hitting the oil cans in the station window and a soft-drink machine. The lunatic chases Navin to a traveling carnival, where Navin hides out, eventually getting a job with SJM Fiesta Shows as a weight guesser. While employed there, Navin meets an intimidating daredevil biker named Patty Bernstein (Catlin Adams) and has a sexual relationship with her, finally realizing what his "special purpose" (his mother's euphemism for his penis) is for. He then meets a woman named Marie (Bernadette Peters) and arranges a date with her. Patty confronts them, but Marie knocks her out. While courting, Navin and Marie walk along the beach and sing "Tonight You Belong to Me", with Navin playing the ukulele and Marie on the cornet. Navin and Marie fall in love, but Marie reluctantly decides to leave him because of his lack of financial security. She writes a note and slips out while Navin is in the bath.
At an emotional and financial low, Navin is soon contacted by Stan Fox with exciting news: His glasses invention, now called the Opti-Grab, is selling big and he's entitled to half of the profits. Now extremely rich, he finds and marries Marie, and they buy an extravagant mansion. Their life becomes one of splendor and non-stop partying. However, motion-picture director Carl Reiner (playing himself) files a class action lawsuit against Navin. Reiner claims that the Opti-Grab caused his eyes to be crossed and his resulting poor vision caused the death of a stunt driver in the film he was directing. Nearly ten million other people have the same vision complaint (including the judge and jury foreman), and are awarded $10 million. Navin sends out each cheque individually and unkindly criticises Marie. She tells him she misses how they were originally, before he got rich. Furious, Navin storms out, picking up random objects from around the room as he goes, saying he doesn't need anything except this, and this, and this. (The picture used for the film poster and DVD is of Navin holding the random things he picks up during his exit.) He leaves with the words "What do you think I am? Some kind of jerk?"
Navin is now alone and poor, living on the streets. His story now told, he resigns himself to a life of misery and memories of Marie, but to his joy and amazement, she suddenly appears, along with Navin's family, to take him home. There's more good news: Having carefully invested the small sums of money he sent home throughout the film, his family have become wealthy themselves. They pick him up off the street, and he and Marie move back home into the Johnsons' new house — a much larger but identical version of their old, small shack.
The story ends with the entire family dancing on the porch and singing "Pick a Bale of Cotton", with Navin dancing along, now having gained perfect rhythm.
Spoilers end here.