Thursday, February 26, 2004

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Love and Loyalty

by Nicholas Stix

“Without your love,
It’s a honky-tonk parade.
Without your love,
It’s a melody played
In a penny arcade.

“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
Just as phony as it can be,
But it wouldn’t be make believe,
If you believed in me.”

E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics to the classic Depression-era song he co-wrote with Harold Arlen, “Paper Moon,” sum up Jerry Maguire, a movie about the redemptive power of love in a crooked world that is just for show.

“Jerry Maguire” (Tom Cruise) is a top agent for professional athletes, working for the biggest sports representation firm, a butt-kissing and back-stabbing world, where the word “love” gets tossed about as easily as cuss words. And yet, Jerry does have one endearing, enduring quality: Loyalty.

Late one night, Jerry has an epiphany, or as he puts it, he doesn’t know if it was a “breakdown” or a “breakthrough.” He types an inspiring “mission statement” on how agents ought to do their jobs. The mission statement does not have the intended effect, but it does inspire at least one person. (I’m being purposely vague, to avoid spoiling the story.)

“Dorothy Boyd” (Renee Zellweger) is an accountant at the firm, who is inspired by Jerry’s words. She falls in love with Jerry, but does Jerry love her? Oh, and did I mention, that Dorothy is a “single mother”? Well, actually, she’s a widow; calling her a “single mother” is one of the movie’s intermittent pc tics. Dorothy’s chubby, bright son, “Ray” (Jonathan Lipnicki), who appears to be about five years old, and has been starved for a man in his life, takes to Jerry immediately. The feeling is mutual.

(The other pc aspects involve a woman beating the hell out of Jerry, one character referring to a deaf relative as “hearing-impaired,” and the conceit of having a black NFL player lecture his white agent on how to love a woman, and on how to respect a “single mother,” a conceit which will be particularly jarring to anyone at all familiar with professional sports. At least the movie does have a sense of humor about feminism, and even a little about race, as the black player has McGuire shouting, “I love black people!”)

“Rod Tidwell” (Cuba Gooding), whom Jerry represents, is an under-sized NFL wide receiver with an over-sized chip on his shoulder. This character gave America the phrase, “Show me the money!,” which became ubiquitous for a few months.

Most of this two-hour-and-eighteen-minute movie consists of tightly framed, intimate scenes with either Cruise and Gooding or Cruise and Zellweger. “Intimate” means that the actors must carry the scene; there is no distraction to diffuse the drama. (And if you need such distractions, then you have such poor players or material, that you have no business shooting the picture in the first place.) And as good as the scenes are with Zelleweger and Cruise, the ones with Cruise and Gooding are even more intense.

I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, but I have to give the Devil his due. He richly deserved his Oscar nomination as Jerry.

This was Renee Zellweger’s breakthrough role, in which she displayed the winsome, spunky persona that has since become her calling card in movies such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Cold Mountain.

After Cuba Gooding won the Academy Award for best supporting actor as Rod Tidwell, I recall sitting in a Union Square coffee shop in lower Manhattan, and telling someone that Gooding only got the Oscar because he was black. A big, beefy, middle-aged black man in the next booth heard me and sighed loudly, to express his anger. (No, I hadn’t yet seen the movie, but the odds were very much in my favor.) Well, I was wrong. Gooding’s role is much meatier than a typical supporting role – almost a lead – and he makes the most of it.

But there are many other great players, too. And every role is exquisitely cast, particularly Bonnie Hunt as Dorothy’s caustic, feminist, older sister, “Laurel,” who hosts a support group of embittered, man-bashing, forty-something women, Regina King in the Alfre Woodard role as Tidwell’s wife, “Marcee,” and Jay Mohr as Jerry’s slimy protege, “Bob Sugar.” Beau Bridges and Kelly Preston also shine in smaller roles.

Jerry Maguire is not “high concept.” There are no car crashes. There is lots of talk. Amazing talk. Director-screenwriter Cameron Crowe wrote one of the best original scripts of the past twenty years. He does here what he has developed a well-deserved reputation for: Showing the world behind the façade (see also Almost Famous) of an apparently glamorous but actually tawdry social milieu (ain’t they all?). This movie is for grown-ups.

But Crowe does not just film talking heads. He choreographs scenes so well, whether involving a mob of people or just two, that they don’t come off as “talky.” (Besides, unless one is an action junkie, the feeling of “talkiness” is often the result of a bad script.)

And oh, the acting. The comparison that comes to mind, is Terms of Endearment, the quintessential domestic drama. When TOE came out in 1983, I recall a critic writing that it showcased the best acting you’d ever see in an American movie. That judgment was unfair to American movies; TOE showcases some of the best acting you’ll ever see in a movie, period. As does Jerry Maguire. There is not a single clearly flubbed line or wasted scene in this entire movie.

The best thing I can say about Jerry Maguire, is that I liked it a lot the first time I saw it, and I loved it, the second time around.

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