“Dogs barking. Can’t fly without umbrella.”
Long, long ago, back in the days when the only computer in my house was a Commodore64, before online dating sites or really even the Internet as we know it, there was Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The film combined spy intrigue with online romance and, most importantly, comedy. The lead, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is a surprisingly well-developed female character, even (sadly) by today’s standards. Oh, and did I mention? She’s a geek, too.
Terry (short for Teresa) Doolittle works at a bank transferring funds around the world. In-between transactions, she chats with other computer operators from around the world, covering the internet basics: trading bootlegs, recipes, and sex advice. Unbeknownst to her, someone else has been “listening in” on her conversations – and has decided she’s the best chance he’s got at staying alive. Soon Terry is thrown into the world of Cold War-era spies.
I loved this movie as a kid, but when I recently watched it again as an adult, I was struck by how well it holds up. It’s a genuinely funny movie, due in no small part to Whoopi Goldberg, but it doesn’t feel like a “vehicle” movie where the actor just “does their thing” for two hours. Rather, the writing (and directing – Penny Marshall’s debut) allows Whoopi to stretch and make the most of her part. And make the most of it she does.
I’ve read online that the movie was originally intended to be a Shelly Long vehicle, but I can’t imagine her in this role – and sure enough, apparently much of it was re-written on set as they went along. There’s also some physical comedy that’s still relatively unusual for a female comedian today, and that, again, is hard to envision on Long or really any other big actress at the time. One would think the result of such seat-of-the-pants production would be a big mess, but instead Terry feels like a “real”, three-dimensional, character.
First, let’s talk geekiness. The movie opens up with a shot of Terry’s apartment. Posters from old movies like Metropolis cover the walls, and giant novelty objects, like a five-foot toothbrush (how 80s!) abound. Terry’s computer at work similarly reflects her personality: instead of the lone family photo, her computer and desk are covered in stickers and figures of everything from Pokey from Gumby, to dinosaurs, to a can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Her clothes are equally fun and 80s-tastic.
She’s competent: she doesn’t just use computers, she’s apparently the only one in the office who can fix them, too, as well as broken desk chairs. She’s not afraid to use her brains or more physical (non-sexual) means to get herself out of sticky situations. Aside from one small exception, Terry pretty much behaves like anyone in her situation (a civilian without training, but not without a brain) would. It’s perhaps sad that that’s still so rare in film, particularly from female characters, but it is what it is.
At the same time, I never feel like I’m watching a Mary Sue character. Nor do I feel like I’m watching a typical action film with a female star, though there’s certainly action. Terry is no superwoman. And then there’s the fact that, physically, she’s pretty small and thin. And Goldberg makes this vulnerable face that just makes your heart sink for her. She’s scrappy, and she’s not dumb, but she’s alone.
That being said, it’s a comedy. There are definitely silly parts, even as the film acknowledges its silliness – lip-synching and truth serum and bad toupees. Whoopi Goldberg isn’t the only comedy veteran in this film (Annie Potts, Carol Kane, and Jon Lovitz, to name a few) and it’s full of quotable lines, even if most of them aren’t appropriate for public. I suspect that most of my viewings of this movie growing up were of the censored Saturday-afternoon-TV-movie variety, because I sure as hell don’t remember half the obscenities. And it may be juvenile of me, but it’s definitely funnier uncensored.
As far as how this film molded me: Well, Terry is independent, smart, and even a little quirky without really being a Manic Pixie Girl. Sure, she might be a little lonely in the love department, but she’s got friends, and interests, and she’s not defining herself by her significant other or waiting to be rescued. In fact, she’s doing the rescuing! There are certainly worse messages for a young geek to absorb.
What about you? Have you seen Jumpin’ Jack Flash? What are some of your favorite geeky films?