Directed by Cameron Crowe
Ever since he stripped to his underwear and ran through his parents' mansion playing air guitar in Risky Business, Tom Cruise has embodied a white-bread notion of cool. It's based on the charisma of selfishness. The characters he plays are generally rich and callow, with just an eyedropperful of humanity to keep them likable. If they don't inherit their wealth, they earn it by excelling at phallic pursuits; Cruise has wielded race cars, Navy fighter planes, and pool cues with speed and finesse. But his characters usually rely on mental reflexes instead of macho strength (or the inner strength that comes from integrity) for their scramble up the ladder. Cruise lives up in his brain, where he always seems to be weighing his options, to be asking, What does this mean for me, Tom Cruise? This makes his portrayals of deeper emotions come off as shallow and manufactured, like cubic zirconium passing for diamonds. It hasn't hurt him with audiences, though. Rarely has an actor been so strongly identified with an idea of success.
What goes up must come down. In Jerry Maguire, Cruise plays the same old smoothie; this time, he's a hotshot sports agent. But a witty script and Cameron Crowe's sensitive direction expose the hysteria, the downright sickness, beneath Cruise's standard persona. Cruise plays along, laying himself out for laughs, and the result is a surprisingly fresh didactic comedy that preaches the hollowness of glamour and status and the American cult of winning.
In the world of sports agents, Jerry Maguire is a pioneer. He jacks up star athletes' salaries, and he encourages his clients to trade in their pure love of the game for endorsements from Fritos and Reebok. Sports these days are so pregnant with sin and greed it's amazing they haven't been satirized like this more often. SMI, the agency Jerry belongs to, embodies modern capitalist evil in all its high-tech callousness. (Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who helped launch Crowe's career by hiring him to write for the magazine when he was 16 years old, has a cameo as the hip, soulless company head.) Everyone in the business wants to get millions of dollars up front without thinking about the consequences, which are brutal. At one point we watch a football player fall unconscious in a savage tackle, and then we see the television broadcast cut away to a commercial in which animated VISA cards dance giddily on a cartoon field.
Sports are the big bogeyman, but Crowe also zeroes in on the idea of the agent via Jerry and his sugary, manipulative approach to relationships. Jerry brags about being available to his clients 24 hours a day. This is a parody of intimacy, consisting mainly of flattery delivered over cellular phones. But one night, while he's away at a conference and probably suffering from jet lag, and just after he's talked an injured hockey player out of a hospital bed and back into the rink so he can get a cut of the bonus, his conscience suddenly awakens. He stays up writing a mission statement for the industry, a long sermon advocating fewer clients, better service, and less focus on the bottom line, and then slips it into the mailboxes of everyone attending a sports convention. Shrewdly, Crowe has him back off in horror immediately after committing this implausible act of good citizenship. Jerry tries to recall his diatribe, but it's too late. Out in the hotel lobby everyone applauds his bravery and lays bets on how long he'll last before the company flushes him down the toilet.
Jerry is fired, and a smarmy Gen-X rival named Bob Sugar steals all his clients except for a nobody--Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a second-string wide receiver who sabotages his chance to shine on the field by acting bitter and needy with his coach. So Jerry sets up his own agency, hiring just one employee. An accountant and the widowed mother of a 5-year-old, Dorothy (the very appealing Renee Zellweger) recklessly quits her job at SMI because she admired Jerry's memo and wanted her work to be more inspiring.
Once the broad outline is in place, all we have to do is sit back and wait for Jerry to fall in love with Dorothy, and for Rod Tidwell to rise to the occasion and re-establish Jerry's career along more modest, humane lines. But Crowe keeps up the interest by drawing out Jerry's humiliation. His soul is alive for the first time, but it's just an embryo. There's a long, desperate stretch where he swings like a schizophrenic between a new decency and the old bachelor vanity. Crowe and Cruise cooperate beautifully in satirizing the image it took Cruise years to build. When Jerry shows up for a business appointment smelling of booze and wearing sunglasses and a blazer hastily thrown over a T-shirt--exactly the kind of outfit he wore in Risky Business to express his independence--he isn't glamorous; he's pathetic. When he races down the highway screeching along with Tom Petty's "Freefalling," he isn't a young man enjoying a moment of happy adolescent freedom; he's in crisis.
T he film is filled with other small, eccentric touches. There's the house that Dorothy shares with her sarcastic older sister (Bonny Hunt), who regularly holds a support group for bitter but sympathetic divorcees. The place has a 19th-century feel, as if the group were a gaggle of watchful spinster aunts; Cruise seems to enter the Land of Women every time he goes inside. And Jonathan Lipnicki, the actor who plays Dorothy's son, is adorable, with none of the offensiveness of adorable children in the movies. A cute child in a Hollywood comedy usually acts like a wizened old con man, arranging adult love affairs and outwitting burglars. But Crowe has an ear for spontaneous, emotionally accurate dialogue, and this boy talks with a real child's weird flitting curiosity, interrupting adult conversations to announce that bees and dogs can smell fear. As for Gooding, we knew from Boyz N the Hood that he was excellent at looking very, very sad while helicopters circled menacingly over his house and the police slew his friends. But it seemed too much to hope he has a sense of humor. Here, drawn out by Crowe (who in Say Anything also gave John Cusack and Lili Taylor their funniest, warmest roles), he is loose and surprising, a fellow hysteric. He's comically childish (as a loyalty test, he makes Jerry scream nonsense in front of the entire SMI staff), but he's also honest and emotionally perceptive, too dignified to be just the pallid half of a buddy-buddy team.
It's hard to think of a recent movie that has dared to be this brazenly preachy. At one point, after he's been shafted by the satanic agency, Cruise announces, "There is such a thing as manners, a way of treating people." Later, the climactic speech establishing his maturity begins, "We live in a cynical world, and we work in a business of fierce competitors." The obvious comparison is to Capra, but it doesn't really work. Jerry isn't an innocent man who tries to help people, comes up against evil, doubts himself, and finally triumphs after a steadfast struggle. He's a mean, noncommittal Ken doll who has to work long and hard to be good, and who has to be good before he can be happy. Jerry must look into his heart and write a mission statement, conquer his fear of intimacy, and essentially recover his inner child. If Jerry Maguire sometimes feels like a throwback, it is also a tolerant New Age fable: Everything this film recommends is straight off the self-help shelf at Barnes & Noble. This formula might make some inhabitants of our cynical world a little queasy. But as clichés go, you could do far worse than the quest for a reasonable adult happiness.