News Column

Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill., Tim Cain column

September 13, 2013


Sept. 13--Movies shouldn't have changed that much in 35 years.

Oh sure, computer graphics are infinitely better than we'd ever have expected. And while some of the real forward-thinking among us might have had some suspicions about the possibility of digital delivery, very few of us imagined the digital three-dimensional world of "Avatar," or the perfection of digital sound. (Now, whether the eye and ear can process that information as pleasingly as they process analog sound and film is another discussion. But that's not the point here.)

But those are the tools used to tell the stories. The stories themselves, they should be relatively unchanged, right? I mean, the subject matter might be intense, and the language might be more modern and/or more adult. But stories are stories, aren't they?

Well, things change.

That was evident through a recent viewing of "The Jerk," the 1979 film that launched Steve Martin's big-screen career.

First, a little background. Martin took the world by storm in the late 1970s, as his "wild and crazy guy" persona became a sensation via appearances on talk shows (which were a far bigger deal at that time) and on "Saturday Night Live." (Martin hosted "Saturday Night Live" seven times before the release of "The Jerk.") Even if you knew of Martin's work as a television writer (for the Smothers Brothers, Glen Campbell and Sonny and Cher), even his biggest fans didn't dare hope "The Jerk" would turn out as fantastic as it did.

And it became the No. 9-grossing film of 1979, ahead of such competition as "Moonraker," "The China Syndrome," "Meatballs," "The In-Laws" and "Life of Brian."

It was also one of the last films of its kind -- a comedy that allowed the comic elements in scenes to simmer and slowly reach a boil. And maybe the payoff was just a smile, a smirk or a slight chuckle. But that was OK.

It's a remarkably different style of comedy than what is used often now. We rarely expect a comic scene to build via a set-up now. Comedy is very basic, very in-your-face, and using subtle comedy is the quickest way to have your funny film branded as "quirky," which often turns out to be a death sentence.

Best example: When Navin (Martin) talks to his sleeping girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Peters) and explains, in great detail, how "I know we've only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days." It works as comedy as it builds, not to a huge guffaw, but to assorted laugh reactions.

It's about a 200-word joke. It doesn't end with someone getting punched, or something blowing up. It's simply a nice, quiet moment, punctured with the script's twists of our expectations. (Martin accomplished the same thing earlier in the film when Navin and Marie walk along a beach in the early evening, singing "Tonight You Belong to Me." Their sweet, almost whispering duet is interrupted by a blaring trumpet solo by Marie.)

This is not to set "The Jerk" above any brilliant recent comedy, like "The Hangover" (only the first one, though, please) or "Tropic Thunder." Those films are also fantastic. And your comedy preference may find you picking either of those (or "Ted," or "Bridesmaids," or -- please let this not be true -- anything starring Adam Sandler) over something as quiet as "The Jerk."

And that's fine. In a lot of ways, "The Jerk" serves as a bridge from what came before (comedies driven by ordinary people in comic situations) to what came after (outrageous and large and improbable set pieces). Even at that, "The Jerk" proved to be a little too crazy for some of the older audience of its time, that audience having learned its comic timing from Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn films, and Jerry Lewis, with and without Dean Martin.

It's not often you're able to see true demarcation lines in art. "The Jerk" is one. It has the added bonus of being really, really funny.|(217) 421-6908


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