JERRY MAGUIRE (Cameron Crowe, 1996)

Unlike Oliver Stone’s listless Wall Street (1987), which at least has good intentions, Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire really believes that greed is good. To distract us from this cynical message, however, the movie lathers over it, in sentimental and tear-jerking fashion, decoy noises about love, caring, and marital commitment, none of which it believes in. Thus we are dealing here with, not just a bad movie, but one whose values, themselves morally bankrupt, are presented and promoted in a surreptitious, crooked way.

Jerry Maguire is a free-lance sports agent who is fired from a large agency after he disseminates a “mission statement” advocating fewer clients—hence, less money for the agency—and more individual attention to those already onboard. Maguire’s soul, therefore, is at war with his heart, which is only after money. Accompanying Maguire in his swift exit is his new assistant, a ditzy accountant who still believes in the righteousness of the fateful memo that even her boss has now disavowed. A widow with an adorable little boy whom he is attracted to, Dorothy falls in love with Maguire and even marries him, overlooking his problems in the area of emotional intimacy. Instead of admitting to himself that he loves his wife, Maguire spends his time, thought and energy chasing down money, via contract negotiations and commercial endorsements, for the single client who hasn’t abandoned him (the memo come back at him with a vengeance), a wide receiver who, joylessly playing without connecting to the crowds, is “the best-kept secret in the N[ational]F[ootball]L[eague]”—a loud, rambunctious “shrimp” testing Maguire’s professional moxie and shaky temper to the limit.

The boy, Rod, is played with crafty charm and studied spontaneity by Cuba Gooding Jr., who won an Oscar (at Edward Norton’s expense in Primal Fear) for projecting his own likeable personality. A more interesting character, though, is Rod’s wife, Marcee, well emoted—again not acted—by Regina King. In college, like Rod, Marcee majored in marketing, purely with the aim in mind of marketing Rod. She is relentless in her pursuit of cold cash. This single-mindedness of hers is the principal joke of the movie’s best scene. Ignoring her responsibilities as parent, Marcee allows her small son to trash Maguire’s office while, in the throes of a tantrum, she screams for more and more money. We soon learn what is really motivating her; Marcee is fighting for her marriage. Desperate to buoy her spouse’s fragile sense of manhood, she wants more money for him—even though, the script points out, thanks to Maguire’s efforts Rod is currently paid far more than he is worth—so he can feel his “worth” as “a proud black man.” Marcee’s fear, perhaps, is that if Rod can’t sufficiently “provide” for his family to correct the memory (and lingering circumstance) of his father’s failure to provide for his, then their marriage will be out the door. (As Ibsen might say: “Ghosts.”) For, although she, not Rod, is their family’s main strength, Marcee is not invincible; she relies on her marriage just as much as her husband does. Her family, she sobs at one point, is her “whole life.”

A Lady Macbeth, Marcee thus goads Rod unmercifully to keep goading Maguire, to help him (she rationalizes) to realize his manhood. The boy, however, is ambivalent. “Show me the money!” he orders Maguire, seemingly oblivious to the fact that fans, team management and the sports press have all all but dismissed him. In her absence, then, Rod is a puppet on his wife’s string. But when in his presence Marcee gets on Maguire’s case, the boy pulls his wife back, revealing a decency that Marcee lacks. (In one scene he is even physically protective of Maguire.) In truth, Rod resembles less his strident wife than he does the greedy jerk who wrote that humane “mission statement.” Jerry and Rod are each other’s moral mirror-image.

I find the pop psychology underpinning this movie over-elaborated and plain silly. Nor am I impressed by what has drawn some attention, the sociological role-modeling by which Rod represents a rarity in movies, a young black male devoted to his family. Good grief! His devotion would be far more attractive and beneficial if he weren’t so damn rich; then, at least, we might get to see how his love of family overcomes some of the myriad problems with which too many African-American families must routinely cope. Everything in the clever writing of this movie reduces down to some sort of fantasy; nothing carries weight or conviction. Question: What will occupy Marcee once Rod’s money chase is resolved? Not to worry; she is having another baby. The whole thing couldn’t be more ridiculously contrived.

Rod does strike it rich, thanks to Jerry Maguire, who verbally spanks the boy by laying open just why he isn’t worth the money both of them are trying to get for him. (It’s this humiliation that nailed Gooding’s Oscar.) Rod, a contrite new father, now starts playing with “heart”; following a near-death experience, he even “dances” for the crowd. Thus Maguire is able to show him “the money” at last.

With this subversive vindication of unbridled greed, the movie lacks a soul. And an eye; the scene already noted in Maguire’s office has claim to being the only purposeful or expressive use of mise-en-scène throughout. Crowe makes movies the way Rod plays football—without heart, and with his eye always on the money. Audiences, duly manipulated, have responded by showing him the money, presumably vicariously thrilled by Maguire’s $400,000+ commission. The identical outcome could have been reached, of course, without Crowe’s celebration of greed. It would have been more fun that way, too.

The lead acting is dreadful. His voice at last admirably controlled, Tom Cruise plays Maguire by switching amongst four crass, vapid modes of expression: (1) narcissistic grinning; (2) “sincere” crying; (3) pleading; (4) yelling. Whether at work or in his marriage, Cruise’s Maguire is a pinwheel of bogus emotions. But, experience has taught (Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Magnolia), this is the way Cruise “acts.” No better is Renée Zellweger, who plays Dorothy. How Zellweger behaves as Maguire’s honest, goofy, idealistic spouse doesn’t mesh with the sad past the script has given her. (Her hair, though, is gorgeous.) On the other hand, Bonnie Hunt is a knockout as Dorothy’s warm, lovingly concerned older sister, Laurel. (Hunt also provides the sex appeal that Zellweger lacks.)

However, the ex-wives club to which Laurel belongs shows just how nasty and mean-spirited writer-director Crowe really is. He can’t help spoiling the contents of his own crock pot.

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