The Jerk (Carl Reiner / U.S., 1979):

The casual approach (the camera pans diagonally to the theater's gutter, where the sullied naf tells his tale) belies the practiced art of Carl Reiner and Steve Martin, who begin with a honky joke and end up with a sagacious analysis of Citizen Kane, nothing less. Martin's titular simpleton is the single white face in a family of Mississippi farmers, stomping stiffly to gospel yet finding his rhythm in easy-listening crap. When guilelessness is your only instrument on the road, it pays to have a dog named Shithead and Jackie Mason kvetching by your side; human struggle for identity is registered as the hero celebrates the addition of his name to the new phone book, precisely the name picked by M. Emmett Walsh's psycho sniper ("Die, you random son of a bitch!"). A sojourn with the carnival reveals the purpose of his crotch, and introduces Bernadette Peters' ample bosom and pinchable cheeks -- the film's lynchpin might be Martin's lingering look of faux-suavity after licking the side of her face. "Next time you make love to your boyfriend... could you think of me?" Martin plays "You Belong to Me" on his ukulele at the beach, Peters in sailor's hat responds by producing a cornet, and the balance between smarm and lyricism just about makes you cry. Maurice Evans the butler braves the execution of his wife in the mansion garden, but dealing with Martin's nouveau-riche gaucherie is something else: "First no bamboo umbrellas for the wine, and now snails on the food!" Reiner gives Martin's reckless gagwork the offhand beauty it demands, down to the cockeyed outbreak that sends the protagonist on his existential way, packing ashtray and paddle game and remote control... Inventing a new form of film comedy is a thankless job, so 92 minutes of direct and sweet surrealism were written off as, yes, "juvenile." After Airplane, the Farrelly brothers and Adam Sandler, however, it's easier to see the genius of kitten-juggling. With Caitlin Adams, Mabel King, and Bill Macy.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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