The Great Scenes: ‘Tonight You Belong to Me’ from THE JERK
The Movie: The Jerk (1979)
Spoiler Level: Moderate
The Setup: While working a kiddie ride at a carnival, the imbecilic Navin Johnson (Steve Martin) meets Marie (Bernadette Peters), a charming and attractive woman with whom he’d fall in love. After the two hit it off on a couple of dates, they take a moonlit stroll across a beach while singing a due t, called “Tonight, You Belong to Me, together before sitting at a campfire, finishing their song and sharing their first kiss.
Why It’s Great: Martin and director Carl Reiner’s ridiculously absurd R-rated comedy rarely gives us a genuine moment that isn’t meant to just make us laugh or shake our heads, but we’re offered a few that at least provoked another emotional response from me. The first is during Navin’s birthday when his adoptive father gives him his Zippo lighter he’s had since the war, and the second is this sweet moment shared between Navin and Marie on the beach that I still find genuinely romantic.
Up to and after this point, we get a straight broad (but brilliant) comedy about this man born a poor black child without any hint of humanity or tenderness, but for whatever reason, Reiner takes a break from the lunacy for a moment that rivals any of what we consider film’s greatest love stories.
Navin might be a jerk, but he isn’t capable of a disingenuous act or feeling. As he plays his ukelele and walks along the shore with the woman of his dreams, we see this film stripped down to its core, losing its inane and often crude tone. We get to watch our hero, a nice guy, enjoy an evening with his girl. It’s the only honest moment of the film, one where Martin seems out of character, but this is exactly who Navin is.
With that, we’re also treated to a beautiful song sung by Martin and Peters, two talented musicians in their own right, softly punctuated with Martin’s ukelele. Of course, Reiner can’t help himself, letting Peters whip out a trumpet for a quick solo to finish the song. Once they finish their duet, Martin tells Peters he wanted to go through end of her horn and through every last tunnel in it until he found the other end and kissed her.
When Navin makes his move, there’s another silly moment as Peters attempts to avoid the smooch at all costs, fearing she will fall in love with him if they share the embrace. But she gives in, and seals their perfect evening with something Navin deserves for just being a nice guy.