Jerry Maguire

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe

With Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renee Zellweger, and Jonathan Lipnicki.

Why are there so few films about advertising? It’s generally acknowledged that commercials are short films, and many directors–even some good ones, such as Ridley Scott–progress from shooting TV spots or music videos (commercials for rock bands) to features. Perhaps filmmakers don’t want their audiences to become aware of how they manipulate the medium to manufacture behavioral or emotional responses. If that’s the case, Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire is a daring film, because it forces such manipulations to the forefront.

Writer-director Crowe (Say Anything and Singles) is a former music critic, so it should come as no surprise that there’s a lot of music in Jerry Maguire. Yet Crowe’s use of music is surprisingly uncritical. As in a TV commercial, the music is supposed to be immediately suggestive. But like a director of commercial spots, Crowe doesn’t show much restraint. The film is scored with a bewildering variety of songs–more than 30 of them–so none of them stick. (By contrast, the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” was played so often in Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express that it became part of the film’s personality.) Jerry Maguire’s score is formless and pointless, just like its love story.

Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) is a sports agent who, in a brief fit of idealism, pens a mission statement averring that friendship should be the bond that cements the athlete-agent relationship. As a result he’s fired, losing all his clients except Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals. When Jerry leaves the office for the last time he’s joined by Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), an idealistic accountant and single mother so impressed by his mission statement that she quits her job at the agency. Impressed in turn by her loyalty and courage, Jerry marries her. He spends the rest of the movie falling in love with his wife and getting Tidwell a contract.

In typical TV-commercial fashion, the characters in Jerry Maguire are constantly affirming feelings we don’t understand yet–we’re asked to take them on faith. Dorothy’s son begins hugging Jerry almost instantly, but we have no idea why. Jerry and Rod seem to interact only by yelling, which according to Rod means they’re finally communicating. But viewers are asked to accept as a friendship a relationship based solely on Jerry’s need for a client and Rod’s need for personal attention. The emotional gulf between these two feels monstrous, insurmountable, yet we’re supposed to believe they’re linked by more than moola. Despite Rod’s mantra of “Show me the money!” he claims that what he really wants is respect, loyalty, and love.

Frustrated in his attempts to win Rod a giant contract, Jerry asks him to “play the game of football from your heart.” So, in a key Monday-night football match that may give the Cardinals a spot in the playoffs, Rod risks life and limb to catch a touchdown pass. Hit in midair, he lands upside down and doesn’t move. Is he paralyzed? Jerry rushes from the stands to the sidelines. Rod’s wife grows hysterical. Viewers wait with bated breath. Finally, Rod blinks. Then he stands up as the stadium roars. He’s still clutching the football. He spikes it and then dances all over the field to resounding cheers. After the game, Rod walks out of the locker room to greet a mass of reporters. Jerry’s cellular phone rings as he hugs his client. It’s Rod’s wife. As the bulbs flash, Rod breaks into tears for the cameras and vows his eternal love for her. Rod later signs a five-year, $12 million contract.

Rod’s emotional display functions as a sales gimmick, first for himself, second for this movie. So does the cute kid who plays Dorothy’s son, Jonathan Lipnicki. With his Chia Pet hair, oversize wire-rimmed glasses, and Pillsbury Dough Boy body, he’s a cuddly toy designed to look like a human being. Crowe gives him countless close-ups, hoping to elicit helpless gurgling and baby talk from the audience. Obviously, cuteness sells. But that’s not all that sells. At film’s end, Rod appears on a talk show, where he’s told of his new contract. He breaks into tears, then recites a litany of the names of those he loves. “I love my wife. I love my children. I love my brother….I love Jerry. I love everybody!” He’s made the same discovery Crowe did when he made Jerry Maguire. Love sells.

Jerry says, “That’s what sports do. They inspire.” His job is to market that inspiration. The spectators in the stands–the surrogates of the movie audience–want spontaneous exhibitions of feeling because then they too can experience the athlete’s thrills vicariously, the drama of the moment. Jerry wants Rod’s touchdown display just as much as the spectators do, because emotion equals truth and that’s what the public will buy. It’s difficult to question such truth, which is, after all, what movies are usually striving to establish. Entire narratives are designed to generate just such moments of catharsis.

But in Jerry Maguire, the connection between money and emotion is made absolutely explicit. And this is what makes the film so disturbing. Despite all the talk of loyalty and heart and love, this movie is selling us the emotions of a sports agent selling us the emotions of an athlete selling his emotions to a national prime-time audience. Cameron Crowe, Tom Cruise, and Cuba Gooding Jr. are salesmen, and we’re consumers, buying emotional truth. That’s a brave message for a commercial film to have. Too bad it’s unintentional.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jerry Maguire film still.