Good Sport

Jerry Maguire

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AS WE SLOUCH inexorably toward the era of Digital Virtual Synthetic Perfection, it's nice to know that Tom Cruise has a snaggletooth incisor he hasn't bothered to straighten. And by extension it's nice to know that Cruise has embraced a movie that deals a lot with hesitancy, awkwardness, imperfection, misunderstanding, and the future of ambiguity.

Having said that, I'll have to admit mixed feelings about my submission to Jerry Maguire's charms. It's a calculatedly perfect date movie, smiling happily as it presents a full cast of funny people with flaws more serious than snaggleteeth. This movie has hooks for both halves of the heterosexual mating dance; it's a money-and-emotions trap, and a cute one too. This is not entirely a criticism, but more of a warning: Writer-director Cameron Crowe (Singles, Say Anything, and the script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High) knows what he's doing, but what he's doing is also pretty fascinating.

Jerry Maguire uses the backstage of pro sports for its setting, which allows for some on-field action and beefcake locker room jokes. However, just as every pro linebacker is likely to have a sister who's a second-grade teacher or a cousin who drives for UPS, there are some humdrum parts as well. That's what the real subject is. Jerry Maguire himself (Cruise) starts in the high-energy world of pro sports flash, as an agent who wheels and deals big contracts and high-profile ad testimonials, but the movie spends more time in humbler spots, most memorably the living room, kitchen, and hallway of a single mother's home.

Jerry's story starts with a nightmare, followed by a realization--kind of an unfinished one, but a good one nonetheless. He notices that he's a "shark in a suit," and that his business is inherently empty. So he writes a 25-page "mission statement" to his peers, calling for "fewer clients, less money," and while the peers applaud him, he's quickly out on his butt for showing his feelings. No alpha males were in the vicinity when he bowed his head, but that's a risk his bosses couldn't tolerate.

Only two people choose instead to see Jerry as holding his head high. One is an accountant at his agency, Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger); and the other is a rogue client, a wide receiver named Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Dorothy is the single mother who quits the agency for Jerry because she's read his manifesto, and Rod is the one jock who thinks Jerry can still get him some serious money. So, with a single trusting employee and a lone client, Jerry tries to live up to the manifesto he's already kind of regretting. This is a story, and a fairly fresh one. (TV watchers might consult The Rockford Files or Shannon's Deal for prior examples of flawed work/home sagas.)

Predictions could be made here, including the audience's swoons over Dorothy's precocious ugly-duckling kid. It's natural to expect that Jerry and Dorothy will fall in love, and that Rod will shut his big mouth and play to the level of the money he wants. This means that Jerry will succeed and all will be rosy. Uh, no. Crowe has a gift for creative obstacles; for example, Dorothy lives with her skeptical but supportive sister (the magical Bonnie Hunt), who hosts regular divorced-women support sessions in the living room. Crowe also reveals that Jerry hasn't figured out love even though Dorothy's handing it to him, pure and organic. These little humps are evidence of reality, and more important than they seem; in a softly charismatic performance, Dorothy has a big/little conversation with Jerry in the back yard, where she parses the meaning of "love" and "like" for him, deftly indicating that their romance is endangered.

Far from any outstanding plays on the field or artfully persuasive agentry on Jerry's part, this moment is the big scene of the movie, because it gets at the essence of Crowe's idea: big money or even big principles are nothing without big, genuine love. Jerry isn't even a philanderer; he's just a guy with a sense of decency who hasn't fully realized that decency can still take him down a rough path. Crowe was wise not to let the NFL influence his aesthetic vision; otherwise we would never have a date-friendly "sports movie" that ends so fittingly with Bob Dylan crooning "Shelter from the Storm." Much more than passion or touchdowns, shelter is the reigning metaphor here.

 
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