A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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.
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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?
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