Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Jerk

Go To
"It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child."

"Lord loves a working man, don't trust whitey..."
Navin R. Johnson (played by Steve Martin)

The Jerk is a 1979 American comedy film directed by Carl Reiner, and co-written by and featuring Steve Martin in his first starring role.

The film follows Navin R. Johnson (Martin), a bum, who tells his life story. After finding out that he is not a natural born child of his black parents, Navin decides to leave home and make it for himself in the world. Despite the fact that he is woefully unprepared, Navin manages to land himself a job, escape a decidedly random psychopath (played by M. Emmet Walsh), run away with a traveling carnival, find the woman of his dreams (Bernadette Peters), and hit it rich, before finally losing everything and ending up a bum in the street. Along the way, the film details Navin's interactions with the people and world around him, where his common misunderstandings of every-day situations often lead to hilarious results.

The film was remade as a Made-for-TV Movie (although billed as a "sequel"), The Jerk, Too, in 1984, starring Mark Blankfield as Navin. It was produced (but not written) by Steve Martin.

If you're looking for tropes about jerks, see Jerkass and The Jerk Index.

Tropes associated with this work:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Many of the film's gags came from Steve Martin's stand up routine, such as claiming he was "born a poor black child" and wandering through the audience, picking up random things off tables and exclaiming it was "all he needed."
  • The Alleged House: Navin's family's home is a very run-down shack barely holding together, but it was full of love. The film's epilogue exaggerates it for laughs with the reveal that the family struck rich while Navin was having his adventures elsewhere and used their fortune to build a mansion... which is a perfect replica of their shack in all of its "glory", only bigger and with some hired help.
  • Alter Kocker: Mr. Hartounian (he is played by Jackie Mason, after all - though "Hartounian" sounds more like an Armenian name than a Jewish one).
  • Artistic License – Law: It goes without saying but the Opti-Grab causing cross-eyedness was not Navin's fault, nor was the death of the stuntman; it's the fault of the people continuing to use Opti-Grab even after the cross-eyedness was becoming apparent and the death of the stuntman was the director's fault due to him trusting his own impaired vision instead of someone who hadn't been using Opti-Grab. The director would have been charged with negligent homicide.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • Dressed in motorcycle leathers, Navin says his goodbyes, walks out to the road, puts on his motorcycle goggles... and sticks his thumb out to hitchhike.
    • When the lawsuit against Navin is announced, Marie tells him she's not worried about losing all of their money... she's worried about losing all their stuff.
  • Balls of Steel: Navin makes the mistake of kicking the crotch of "Iron Balls" McGinty.
  • Benevolent Boss: Harry Hartounian, the owner of the gas station, who not only gives Navin his first job but even a place to sleep! All he (jokingly) asks in return is "when you're rich and famous, you'll send me a postcard." To say thanks, Navin does just that later in the movie.
  • Berserk Button: Navin was raised by a black family and, for much of his life, thought he was black. He takes the N-word very personally.
  • Betty and Veronica: Marie and Patty.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Parodied. During the beach scene, Navin moves in to kiss Marie, she resists, and it turns into a struggle where it's... more or less a competition to see who can make the goofier face.
    Navin (afterward): Was it good for you too?
  • Book Ends: The film starts and ends with Navin singing and dancing with his family at home.
  • Chekhov's Gun: After Navin gets his first job, he promises to send some of everything he makes back to his family. Later, once he's homeless, it turns out that he continued sending his family checks after he got rich. They began investing the money and are fairly well off by the end of the movie.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Patty the motorcycle daredevil.
  • Closer to Earth: Relatively speaking, at least. Marie has her moments of ditziness, but between her and Navin, she's clearly the smarter and more sensible of the two.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Navin is extremely naive about how the real world works and remains so throughout his character arc, so his reasoning around and responses to situations are usually strange and illogical to say the least. Among the most notable examples is when he starts to put words into a barking dog's mouth and infers that there's a fire in the motel from the barking.
  • Comically Missing the Point: The famous "He hates these cans!" scene is a notable example, however Navin's whole life is this trope; it'd be easier to name the scenes where Navin doesn't miss the point by a mile.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: The first thing Navin does after finding out how much he really cashed his check for, though it doesn't occur to Navin and Marie to move out of their tiny apartment until their live-in butler and maid suggest it.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Played for Laughs by the ending;
    Navin: How did you find me?
    Father: I dunno. This is the first place we looked.
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Carl Reiner plays himself leading a class-action suit against Navin.
    • Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb appears as "Iron Balls McGinty."
  • Cucumber Facial: Seen during Marie's stint selling face cream.
  • Dance Party Ending: The film ends showing Navin, Marie, and his family singing and dancing at their home.
  • Description Cut: Upon discovering his name in the phone-book:
    Navin: Things are gonna start happening to me now!
    [Cut to the Sniper picking names at random out of a phone-book:]
    Sniper: 'Johnson, Navin R.'. Sounds like a typical bastard.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Stan Fox apparently never considers the possibility of wearers of the Opti-Grab unintentionally looking at it's handle for so long that they eventually go cross-eyed.
  • Dinner Order Flub: Marie gets the escargot at a fancy restaurant.
    Navin: You would think that in a fancy restaurant at these prices you could keep the snails off the food!
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A throwaway gag has the butler's wife being executed by firing squad for taking too many cash advances on her credit card.
  • Dissimile: In a letter to his parents, Navin describes his girlfriend as looking just like mom, "except she's white and blonde".
  • The Ditz: Navin, to extreme levels.
    Navin: You mean I'm gonna stay this color?
  • Doorstop Baby: How Navin wound up with the Johnsons.
  • Double Entendre: During the "snails on the food" scene in which Marie is wearing a low-cut dress and looking up in an unintentionally provocative way.
    Navin: Two boobs! That's what he takes us for!
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Navin finds out exactly what his "special purpose" is by having Patty come onto him, grab his butt, and then throw him to the bed, before the trailer starts rocking. Keep in mind, he just found out right before they had sex.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Sure, M. Emmet Walsh's character is a lunatic who picks random people from the phone book to murder, but he won't trespass on private property (at least not areas designated as "Carnival Staff Only") to do so.
  • Exorcist Head: Navin's reaction to the size of the check from Stan Fox.
  • Felony Misdemeanor:
    • Navin's butler's wife is executed by firing squad for early withdrawal from a bank.
  • Freudian Excuse: The Sniper's rampage was prompted by the breakdown of his marriage and the fact that he was quitting smoking.
  • Gangbangers: At the gas station, Navin services some stereotypical Latino gangbangers who pay for their service with a stolen credit card from one of several stolen purses.
  • Genius Ditz: Navin lacks common sense and is naive and ignorant about the ways of the world, but he has his Smart Ball moments, such as his quickly picking up automotive work skills and his spur of the moment invention of the Opti-Grab.
  • Gilligan Cut: After the newscast with Carl Reiner announcing his plans to sue Navin, Navin assures Marie that they won't lose the lawsuit by saying "We're going to receive a fair trial from an impartial jury." Cut to the cross-eyed judge and jurors ruling in favor of Reiner.
  • Gold Digger: Hartounian tells Navin that his trophy wife would leave him in heartbeat if it weren't for his money. She nods in agreement.
  • Groin Attack
    • Patty playing a little too aggressively with Navin's "special purpose."
    • Navin attempts to inflict one himself on one of his racist financial advisors. Unfortunately, the recipient is one "Iron Balls" McGinty.
  • Hand-or-Object Underwear: Navin uses dogs.
  • Happily Adopted: There's no question that Navin was very happy with his adoptive family growing up, and that they loved him as deeply as they did any other family member.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Navin's would-be assassin decides to take up a less violent line of work - as a private detective.
  • How We Got Here: Navin is introduced as a bum living in an alley, and then back we go to his old house for the story proper.
  • Improbable Weapon User: And quite ineffective at that. Navin tries to defend himself against the crazy gunman (who, unknown to Navin, is now restored to sanity and working as a private investigator) by throwing popcorn at him.
  • It's All Junk: Navin's boss at the carnival says as much one night about the prizes on display at his weight-guessing booth, noting that Navin has taken in $15 from customers and given out 50 cents' worth of crap.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The kind of jerk Navin is, being more of the less-common definition of a bonehead or a schmuck than he is any kind of a mean or unpleasant guy.
  • Just the Introduction to the Opposites: Navin's coming-of-age is basically a 180 on the "minority character raised in a majority environment discovers their true heritage and culture" story by having said character be a lily-white dork raised by an impoverished black family.
  • Kindhearted Simpleton: Part of Navin's charm. As much of a bonehead as he is, for much of the movie he has nothing but the best intentions.
  • Literal Metaphor: Navin literally learns the difference between shit and Shinola.
  • Long List: Navin is quite prone to these, such as one of all the extravagances he bought with his newfound wealth which he shares with his mother and his rant about all of the things he needs as he's stumbling out of his house.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Bernadette Peters wears several revealing outfits. Very, very well.
  • Moving Buildings: Navin attempts to prevent a car full of thieves from escaping before he can call the cops by tying a rope between their car and the side of a building. When they drive off anyway, they end up dragging half the building away with them. And it's a church. With a wedding being celebrated, and the groom and bride trapped in different parts.
  • N-Word Privileges: Played for Laughs as Navin beats the crap out of racist developers (he was raised by a black family, and still thinks of himself that way).
  • Never Trust a Title: Navin isn't really a jerk, but instead more of a well-meaning idiot who unintentionally causes problems for people (he technically is still one, since an older definition for the word means "an annoyingly stupid or foolish person"). He does refer to himself as a jerk in the opening scene and just before walking out on Marie near the end, though.
  • Nice Girl: Marie.
  • Nouveau Riche: Navin during the second act.
  • Oblivious Adoption: Again, Navin was raised by an all-black family. He only realizes this when his mother tells him.
    "You mean I'm gonna stay this color?"
  • Overly Long Gag
    • "I know we've only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days." Navin then proceeds to list every single day he spent with her, explaining how long each of them felt and how they add up.
    • All the things Navin claims are "all [he] needs!".
    • Navin listing all of the incredibly specific (and increasingly absurd) things that he always told his family he wanted to have and has now bought.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: As Navin beats down racist landlords, he says "Sir, you are talking to a nigger!"
  • Rags to Riches: And then back to rags.
  • Random Events Plot: The story switches gears several times, but it's tied together by Navin gradually finding love, money and fame. And losing it all. And then finding love again.
  • Road Trip Across the Street: Navin's journey starts by hitchhiking down to the end of the fence in front of his house.
    Navin: Thanks for the company, I hope I can repay you someday!
  • Snooty Haute Cuisine: Navin and Maria take advantage of their recently gained wealth by eating at a posh French restaurant, but Navin winds up Comically Missing the Point throughout. He insists on drinking the newest wine the restaurant has, rather than the vintage bottle the waiter initially brings out—and he gets angry when Maria's order of escargot has snails all over the plate.
  • Spoiler Cover: The tagline was "A rags to riches to rags story." Nonspecific, but that's basically the whole movie.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: The film looks like it's going to end with Navin languishing alone and forgotten in poverty. That is, until Marie and his adoptive family show up for a more proper Happy Ending by bringing him home, which has been upscaled thanks to his father investing the money Navin gave the family throughout the film.
  • Talking Animal: Shithead. Except only Navin can understand him, and even then his translation isn't always accurate.
  • Trophy Wife: Navin's boss (Jackie Mason) brings his hot wife to the garage to explain the importance of keeping the place safe. Without such a lucrative business how could he, of all people, get and keep such a woman? He explains that if anything happened to the business she'd leave him in a second. She nods in agreement.
  • Umbrella Drink: Navin is very partial to them, after seeing how cool they looked in a magazine.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Navin's "special purpose" (it's his penis).
  • Visual Pun: Navin's family had to tear down their old house, but they built a bigger house in its place. If you look closely, you'll notice that it's the exact same hovel as before, only scaled up about 40%. He did say "bigger," not necessarily "nicer."
  • You Know I'm Black, Right?: Subverted. Navin, after striking it rich, is talking to several financial advisers encouraging him to invest his new-found wealth in a housing/apartment complex. Once they explain that they specifically plan on making a racially segregated complex, an understandably offended Navin, who was raised by a black family and believed himself to be black until fairly recently, proceeds to beat the crap out of all of them with some previously unseen martial arts skills.

"Come, Shithead!"