Jerry Maguire (1996)

Directed by Cameron Crowe

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Jerry Maguire is a wonder.  It’s a sappy romantic drama about a sports agent learning to, I suppose, learn empathy, and it all works.  It doesn’t seem like it should, but then again this is the role Tom Cruise seems to have been made for.  It allows him to play into all of his charisma, showcasing the darker sides of such extroversion and privilege, and in doing so unpacks his celebrity as a whole.  It’s one of those movies that has the hero starting out on top, then pushes him on a cliff just so he can climb back up.  Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise the movie either has to really pry him open so you can see the heart underneath or it has to make the people working against him slimy and unlikeable.  Jerry Maguire does both.

First off, the writing and performances are great, everyone from Cruise and Renée Zellweger to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Regina King.  And yet, I’m just so taken with how easy it is to hate Bob Sugar, the rival sports agent played by Jay Mohr.  His only role in the movie is to put a face to the antagonist.  He’s the onetime mentee of Cruise’s Jerry Maguire, and he’s forced to fire him from the agency after Maguire writes a memo about how their industry has gone wrong.

After writing the memo/manifesto, Maguire immediately backtracks and tries to distance himself from what he wrote in a fever state late one night, but once he’s fired he will be forced to back up his own words and try to change the game.  Well, he doesn’t try to change it so much as he changes it by trying to play it with what few cards he has left.

Bob Sugar is just another sports agent, but he’s the one swooping up Maguire’s old clients, and he’s the one who stands there looking smug while Maguire continues to fail in spectacular fashion.

It’s all so affectionately deranged.  The antagonist is unnecessarily slimy, the love interest, Dorothy (Zellweger) is immediately smitten with the male hero, and all the other characters are there to in some way comment on the romance between the two leads.

Jerry Maguire exists in some kind of made up fantasy land, creating loose ends that are neatly tied up in the end, and yet it still works so well.  It’s an expertly composed song that hits all the right notes and compels you to feel what it wants you to feel.  It’s a melodrama about a bit of a madman (and Cruise as a performer continues to carry his own celebrity baggage into his roles), and yet it works.  Hell there’s something that feels slightly problematic by today’s standards about Zellweger’s character, a single mother who only really seems interested in Maguire’s affections, even though she has her own uphill battle to climb, but I was as smitten with their courtship as they were.

The movie is as sentimental and sincere as Crowe’s other two films, though much more successful than Singles.  In all three of his movies the main characters are in search of love, almost blindly so.  They are so stubborn and single-minded, it seems, that you can’t imagine how they ever built lives of their own before the cameras started rolling.  They follow one course of action and see it through to the end.

I think that balance works in Jerry Maguire because Maguire is actually quite the opposite.  He is a narcissist to be sure, and early in the movie he is made to acknowledge his own sins and shortcomings.  The son of one of his injured clients points out, rather bluntly, Maguire’s own selfishness, and his coworkers will tease him with a video of his past lovers who mock him and agree that he doesn’t know how to be alone.  He is forced to examine the possibility that he is indeed good at friendship but terrible at intimacy.

Maguire doesn’t know how to show true affection or how to receive it.  By the end of the movie he will learn both and thus figure out what Dorothy seems to have known all along.  Her own single-minded line of thinking fits in with other Cameron Crowe protagonists (namely Lloyd Dobbler), and in a way it’s tested by Maguire’s own selfishness, though there’s never any weight given to the idea that Dorothy is misguided.

She wants love, and she’s quick to proclaim it, and by the end of the movie it seems she was right all along.  It’s Jerry who finally sees the light, not only in his love life but his professional one too.  It’s his memo which speaks most directly to Dorothy, and he will ultimately back up those words, as seen through the professional relationship he has with his client, football player Rod Tidwell (Gooding Jr.).

So in Jerry Maguire the type A, narcissist sports agent has a spiritual awakening, then retreats back into his own ways but will spend the rest of the movie learning to live the life he glimpsed in that awakening less than ten minutes into the movie.

It’s fascinating to me that by the end Maguire is not much different than Dobbler, Steve Dunne or other Cameron Crowe characters.  All that matters to him will be receiving and giving love, and the movie executes this idea so well, with so many quotable lines, that you can’t help but agree with him.

Taking a step back, however, the type of love pronounced, italicized, bolded and underlined in Cameron Crowe films seems overwhelming and unsustainable.  They are defined more by passion than the simple kindness and compatibility of longer-running relationships.  They are exciting and frightening rather than simple and mundane.  His characters are in desperate search for love, they find it, and then the films end before it can get boring.

Up Next: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Martian (2015), A Christmas Story (1983)

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