August 1999
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli

Ode to Whoopi

Who can turn the world on with her smile? No, not Mary: Whoopi. In the Internet-related film arena, Whoopi Goldberg suddenly makes it all seem worthwhile. I know, it's easy to forget, since Internet-themed movies are a dime-a-dozen now, that Whoopi was first, setting the tone with her leading role in the eerily prescient instant cult classic "Jumpin' Jack Flash," last seen on the big screen thirteen years ago this fall. Thirteen years! That sets it straight in the era of Trapper Keepers and bracelets made from the tabs off of aluminum coke cans, when arbitrage was hot and so was Erik Estrada's career. Visions of spiked hair and denim jackets, collar up, filled every schoolboy's mind, wedged in there with the televised visuals from the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Now yes, technically the Internet did not exist in 1986, at least not in its present form. But that didn't stop director-cum-futurist Penny Marshall from skillfully working with the far reaching plot elements in the script, namely people meeting via a network of computers to have sex and also saving lives. It's like Marshall was born with a GEnie account and 9600 baud modem!

For Goldberg, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was a natural beginning to the long series of hard-hitting dramatic roles she would later have, in such chillingly memorable films as "Fatal Beauty" (1987, Goldberg as bitch-ass cop out to find some drug dealers gone bad, featuring a great - no just GREAT - shootout in a mall sporting goods store), "Soapdish" (1991, soap opera satire; saw this one in the theatre three times! I mean, Robert Downey Jr. and Whoopi: pure cinema gold), and "Sister Act" (1992, bad Whoopi makes good God music while hiding from the mob in a convent: that scene where the nuns are in the casino, that's all that need be said).

But while these later roles garnered box office and critical acclaim for Goldberg, it seemed to me that there was something missing - I wanted the upbeat, technically savvy yet tough woman who donned a blue sequined dress and lip synched to Dianna Ross in front of a bunch of stuffy Brits at the consulate. Where was she? Bring her back! Were blue sequins the secret to success for "Jack?" No, that was just one small part of a complex whole.

In the film, it's winter in New York City, and Terry Doolittle (Whoopi Goldberg) works for a bank, which somehow still leads her to start each day with a wave and a smile. A good stress management tip is found right in the opening minutes of the film: instead of taking her anger at missing the bus out on passers-by, Doolittle just steals some flowers from the local Korean market. Kudos to director Penny Marshall for not sparing us the details! Doolittle's chatty computer style is popular all over the globe, but not with her boss, and she's reprimanded for abusing the linked system of computers to swap (besides money) recipes and chit-chat. With Doug (Jon Lovitz) and Fred (Phil Hartman) as her cube-mates, it's a wonder she even bothered with computers! Those are some funny guys.

Anyway, working late one night she gets a come on from "Jumpin' Jack Flash," who wants her to come over to a secure channel. How many times have we heard that line before? Another directorial innovation: Jack suddenly has a personality, in that we the audience don't have to strain to read his words on the screen - he just says them in a voice over as he's "typing."

"Find the key and sing with me," Jack says, and so Whoopi goes home and plays Rolling Stones albums late into the night, finally realizing that Jumpin' Jack Flash's sly intent was the key the Stones song of the same name was in, namely B-flat. It's all downhill from there, "crossfire hurricane" style, as we're taken on a madcap ride full of intrigue and adventure to try and get Jack -- brother of James, both in British Intelligence (OK I made that up, the James part, but Jack is a spy) -- safely out of Eastern Europe, since someone back at the Home Office is trying to kill him. And for a while there, they're trying to kill Terry Doolittle too! In one classic scene, Carl the bad guy (Vyto Ruginis) hooks a tow truck up to the phone booth Doolittle is in and drags her on a wild ride uptown. "I'm a little black woman in a big silver box," she says into the phone as they near the Upper West Side. Classic Whoopi.

Eventually of course everything ends well, although there is a tense moment when Jack stands Terry up at a fancy restaurant - their first face to face meeting. Did Penny Marshall have a crystal ball in which to see the future of the Internet or what? Jack finally meets Terry at work in a touching scene he starts by typing on her keyboard. She's so overcome she can't turn around, but then she does, and there's Jack! Roll credits.

It is this sensitive yet action-packed style that will be replicated into the early nineties and straight through to today, coming to represent the classic formula for Internet-themed films, encompassing as it does technical savvy, action and adventure, and sex. Sure the technology will change and the plot twists will get twistier, but the basic formula is the same, thanks to Whoopi. I know I'm in awe, and I'd love for you to tell me you are too.



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