Down From the Shelf ~ Jumpin’ Jack Flash

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bank employee gets a coded message from an unknown source and becomes embroiled in an espionage ring.

Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Roscoe Lee Browne. Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Michael McKean, Tracey Ullman

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s an example of a movie I always remember being better than it is. Over the years I’ve returned often to this strange mix of comedy and intrigue with fond memories of fun only to wind up 106 minutes later wondering why I thought it was so great.  Don’t get me wrong, as a showcase for rising star Whoopi Goldberg, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is aces but considering the actress was coming off her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance in The Color Purple and was several years away from winning her Oscar for Ghost one can’t help but see this as a minor blip on her way to the A-list.

You aren’t wrong in thinking the role of a lonely bank employee that gets roped into a real-life spy adventure is a strange fit for Goldberg.  Just like Sister Act was conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash was intended for Shelley Long who opted for The Money Pit and Outrageous Fortune instead.  Aside from a few instances that were surely the result of Goldberg’s improvisation, the dialogue and overall plot seems generally unchanged from when it was Long’s…and that’s problematic.  With no discernible personality, Goldberg’s character (and the actress herself) struggles at the confines of a screenplay that often works against her more than it does her any real favors.

After original director Howard Zeiff was fired after a few weeks of filming, actress and first-time director Penny Marshall was brought in and that also doesn’t exactly help things.  While Marshall would go on to have several notable efforts like Big, A League of Their Own, and Awakenings, the rookie mistakes are evident.  Though it has comedy in fits and starts, the tone of the movie is all over the place.  One moment it’s an office comedy, then it’s an international thriller before getting Keystone Kop-y after Goldberg finds herself locked in a telephone booth tethered to the back of a tow truck.

With all these items in the minus column of my critical spreadsheet, why do I keep returning to this one?  Clearly, it’s Goldberg and it’s thanks to her the movie remains a rainy day option.  Managing to sell most of the malarkey dialogue she’s tasked with, Goldberg’s NYC vibe creeps in at opportune times.  I still get a kick out of her conning her way into a royal gala at the British embassy dressed as Diana Ross and lip-synching to one of the singer’s tunes.  While the telephone booth scene is quite screwball, listening to Goldberg riff on her situation provides some nice chuckles.  Let’s also give a hand for a fine supporting cast of familiar faces and a great big roll of the eyes at the ancient computer technology that at one time was cutting edge.

A hit at the box office, even if Jumpin’ Jack Flash is an interesting step in Goldberg’s ladder to stardom and hasn’t aged well at all it’s still better than Burglar, Fatal Beauty, and the string of other head-scratchers she appeared in the years after The Color Purple was released.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

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stella

The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.