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Published: Thursday, 7/28/2005

The Jerk set the stage for Martin s film career

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Jerk gave Steve Martin his first starring role. The Jerk gave Steve Martin his first starring role.
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Here s a funny story.

Since the only extra worth poking around in on The Jerk: The 26th Anniversary Edition (Universal, $19.98) is a straightforward series of notes on its production, this is what I learned: The mansion in the film, the one Steve Martin buys after inventing a handle for easily removing eyeglasses, was in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles.

It was owned by a sheikh. It had a disco in the basement. The neighbors hated the sheikh. He planted plastic flowers. On New Year s Day 1980, less than a month after the film opened, someone burned the house to the ground. As it crumbled, the neighbors watched and sang:

Burn, baby, burn!

Somehow, it makes sense.

The Jerk was Martin s first starring role. Until then, he was selling out hockey rinks with his stand-up act and had only appeared in cameos in two films: The Muppet Movie and the infamous 1978 Bee Gees disaster, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. (He played Dr. Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine). Absurdity was his thing but he was primarily a TV star, best known for his guest spots on Saturday Night Live, and The Jerk was transparently a star vehicle.

We ve since gotten used to nightclub comics tweaking their stand-up material into a sitcom more or less, as Seinfeld and Cosby did it, into an entire philosophy of life. Martin created a character that wasn t an extension of himself, though this wasn t entirely evident until later, when he made Roxanne and wrote for the New Yorker.

Martin plays Nathan Johnson, a poor black child, with a dog whose name I can t mention in this newspaper. When he finally makes his millions and the bank asks for two forms of ID, he provides them with a temporary driver s license and his unfinished application to become an astronaut. What made the film so exciting, and what makes it feel that way now, is that Martin never separates himself from his role. He doesn t wink, and despite his obvious admiration of Bernadette Peters, who never plays it straight, he avoids sentiment.

Nathan never learns.

With writing-directing partner Carl Reiner, he never would: Martin went on to repeat the character, sort of, in a series of silly comedies that reveal themselves much smarter on second and third viewing. (The Man With Two Brains is a personal favorite.) What s kind of remarkable about these is that comedy is the only thing on their mind.

If that sounds obvious, pop in almost any comedy from the 26 years since it s been released: There will be a love story or a build up to a moment of personal redemption. Or we ll be told in the end it s really about family, friendship, honor, being yourself, blah, blah, blah.

Martin himself couldn t avoid that trap either, and probably didn t want to: Before he alternated smarter comedies with neutered family ones, he followed The Jerk with the Herbert Ross musical Pennies From Heaven which might have been a hit if there had been a burgeoning indie film scene in 1981. In the suburbs, it opened, then vanished quickly.

But those two movies are the blueprint for Martin s entire career: This fall, the adaptation of the novella Shop Girl opens. In January, he stars in The Pink Panther the Jerk rides again.

IT COULD GO ALL THE: Way before the Boston Red Sox won the World Series last fall, there was mumbling niche of sports fans who have wondered when sports themselves would be taken seriously by the DVD market. Until now, until A&E s The Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series Collector s Edition ($129.95, but $30 and $40 cheaper through some online stores), sports discs were either highlight reels or fawning documentaries set to generic tunes.

This 12-disc set already a bestseller in New England, naturally is not merely a record of the Sox post-season drama. It suggests a way to make expensive sets of archival sports material attractive, even addicting. Of course, you need great games, and this set contains the entire American League Championship Series showdown between Boston and New York, with one game per disc. The innovation here, though, is entirely simple:

Just show the games.

The whole games.

A bonus disc has the opening day ring ceremony and official World Series film. But the attraction is how each World Series game itself is given its own disc, with a slip jacket providing every statistic you need to know. And I mean every stat: the game s attendance, the wind speed. If Matrix fans, get their obsessive box sets, why not Red Sox Nation? I am already holding my breath for A&E s The Detroit

Lions 2006 Super Bowl Collector s Edition.

Coming soon?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at:

cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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