Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.
Every now and then, there’s a hit movie that so captures the collective imagination that I avoid it like the plague. My college film professor’s effort to quash enthusiasm for even the remotely popular (he repeatedly dumped on Run Lola Run or anything involving Tarantino) left its mark on me to the point that I, too, became a cinematic curmudgeon incapable of suspending disbelief long enough to enjoy a cultural event.
But that’s not why I avoided Jerry Maguire. I never got around to seeing that particular Tom Cruise picture simply because, by the time I reached the legal age to rent a copy, I felt as though I’d already seen it. At that point, catchphrases like “Show me the money,” “You complete me” and “You had me at ‘hello’” were ingrained within our cultural lexicon to the point that I got the gist of the flick: a smarmy pro-football agent works his butt off to placate Cuba Gooding Jr. and woo Renée Zellweger. Big whoop. In fact, I’d so dismissed ever giving a damn that I came full circle on this movie; as the popularity of its memes waned, I wondered if maybe I’d missed something by never giving Jerry Maguire a shot. Perhaps, without knowing it, I was incomplete.
So I entered my long overdue viewing of this Cameron Crowe-directed feature with relatively high hopes. After all, Tom Cruise used to be able to act (sort of), and the film revolves around pro football, one of my most longstanding pleasures. But as the movie opened with a shot of Earth and Cruise providing the obvious narration “So this is the world,” I gained my first inkling that I was in for two hours of Crowe painting with broad strokes. As the titular pro-sports agent (Cruise) collects high-fives and absorbs enough backslaps to herniate a disc, he’s supposed to be unlikable. But as Jerry incurs both a standing ovation and a pink slip for penning a self-righteous novella-length memo during a dark night of the soul, I remembered that plausibility is not Crowe’s strong suit.
As the plot unwinds, pouty accountant Dorothy (Zellweger) impulsively follows the recently-axed Jerry out of the office, and the bombastic Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Gooding Jr.) sticks with him for some equally obscure reason. And away we go. I spent the majority of the film’s 139 minutes trying to puzzle out how anything in Jerry’s philosophical approach changes after he delivers that career-threatening memo. Despite brief moments atop a soapbox, Jerry rarely practices what he preaches and — instead of embracing integrity — continues to sniff around for money while feeling sorry for himself. He uses Dorothy’s loyalty to quell his own fear of loneliness, hastily marrying her rather than allowing her to move away. When Tidwell calls him out on assuming a father figure role to Dorothy’s young and unnecessarily cute son (Jonathan Lipnicki) as a means to get into her pants, Jerry admits that he “shoplifted the pootie.”
That’s not to say that Jerry Maguire is all bad. There’s much to admire in the scope of the film (Crowe is nothing if not ambitious). The realistic on-field NFL scenes dazzle until Tidwell awakens from a head injury to indulge in a protracted and outrageous touchdown breakdance. Zellweger rose to prominence following her empathetic performance as Dorothy, and Gooding Jr. deserved his Best Supporting Actor nod for the engrossing portrayal of a flamboyant wide receiver. Furthermore, the film presciently highlights the destructive nature of concussions 15 years before that specific injury gained its current preventative focus within the NFL. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relish the cameos by the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon. Even the old-school “Monday Night Football” trio of Frank, Al and Dan make an appearance. But while the film succeeds in the believability of its setting, Jerry’s transformation never fully manifests. The “you complete me” payoff (a ham-fisted line to begin with) doesn’t resonate with me because I don’t believe for a second that Jerry changes.
The fact that this movie received Best Picture and Best Actor nominations (Cruise essentially does little more than tap into his own mania) may speak more to the period of its release than the quality of its content. There’s a dated feel to every frame, and era-specific cultural references lose their zing after a decade and a half. What may have been a heartwarming cinematic experience in the mid-‘90s now comes off as cheesy and stale. At least “shoplifted the pootie” never caught on.