If you want to make an omelette, the saying goes, first you have to make a remarkably unexceptional non-starter featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a tech whiz embroiled in an espionage scandal. Apparently people actually like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, judging by the surprising number of nostalgia-fueled pieces about Whoopi’s young comedy days, but apart from an amusement with her indomitable ‘tude I can’t imagine why. You can just watch The View if you’re into Whoopi’s ‘tude, right? Unless you prefer a different kind of supporting cast, essentially one made up not of has-beens but of not-yets.
One such not-yet was behind the camera in the form of Penny Marshall, one day destined to direct the likes of Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own and more alongside her numerous TV credits. Jack Flash is the transition piece from the Laverne & Shirley days (she was Laverne) and also serves as her first real foray into feature filmmaking. As is the case with many such transitions, Jack Flash is really only noteworthy in a retrospective review of a one-day-great director. Another Happy Days-related alum leaps to mind in the form of Ron Howard, who would find great success behind the camera but not before making his first movie Grand Theft Auto.
First things first: the set designer on this film must have either been attempting to sabotage poor Penny or in the throes of a major bender, because the decorations in Whoopi’s studio apartment amount to sheer insanity. To say nothing of the various trinkets and whatzits and doohickeys and baskets of accouterments scattered throughout the apartment, the movie posters coating the walls are a) the kind of thing you see in bedrooms in Brink! and b) very obviously selected at random. Mighty Mouse Meets Deadeye Dick is next to The Cherry Orchard, much to the chagrin (or pride) of Chekhov. There’s one for The Maltese Falcon, one for Casablanca, a random cardboard cutout of Paul Newman. The most bizarre inclusion is a poster for Kiss of the Spider Woman, which just came out less than a year before Jack Flash. Terry, Whoopi’s protagonist, has very unpredictable taste in movies.
Maybe all of that was a subtle effort at self-awareness, seeing as how the marketing for Jack Flash must have been a strange process. It’s Whoopi Goldberg’s first comedy role in a feature film and only her third film credit in total, the previous two being an avant-garde ensemble called Citizen and her Golden-Globe-winning supporting part in The Color Purple. The movie posters and props certainly have nothing to do with the plot, although to be fair Terry does use her gigantic toothbrush (???) as a weapon at one point. So maybe it was part of the effort to make Jack Flash as light as possible, all this funny shit hanging around the apartment because being a slob is prerequisite for being a likable protagonist, evidently.
But, no, that can’t be it. Jack Flash is light fare with no need for any extra alleviation of any sort. This is about as much a spy thriller as Ace Ventura. It would maybe benefit from the opposite, from some real tension, from some fake tension or a development of any consequence whatsoever. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s movies with this kind of happy sheen were a dime a dozen, draped entirely over a goofy main character and propelled by little else. But they usually had some sort of message to go along with everything; the message in Jack Flash is keep your apartment clean, you never know who’s stopping by. As an unsuspecting-citizen-gets-wrapped-up-in-spy-conspiracy flick Jumpin’ Jack Flash makes about as much sense as The Osterman Weekend, which is to say it makes about as much sense as Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, which is to say it makes about as much sense as Nicolas Cage, which is to say that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
You can easily make the counterargument, that being this is a Whoopi Goldberg movie. Part of the reason why those aforementioned people appreciate it might be because of the lack of seriousness, the disregard for a forced message or moral or grave consequences. Whoopi’s doing her thing, giving people ‘tude, and if you wanted an actual spy movie why didn’t you just opt for The Quiller Memorandum or something?
I doubt anyone — even someone with decorating sensibilities to mirror Terry’s — has a poster of Jumpin’ Jack Flash hanging up in their bedroom, but maybe that’s the best way to frame Penny Marshall’s first feature effort. If the movie you make has tension in balance with levity, has a sensible plot in balance with a bonkers leading lady, has something to say by the end, then perhaps those aspects will stick with people. In lieu of that you can still have something that’s admittedly missing from comedy today: a truly carefree attitude comprised of zero arrogance but also the inherent risk of simply being forgotten not long thereafter, leaving only a vague and fleeting sense that perhaps, someday, you’d like to watch that movie again. If you have that sense about Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it might be best to just enjoy it as a memory.