I suppose if I had to pick one desert-island decade of films to confine myself to it would be from the Golden Age: the Forties, or maybe the Thirties. But Sling Blade last week reminded me that even the Nineties were a Golden Age compared to today: My kid and I went to the local fleapit the other day and, confronted by a choice between superhero spin-offs, trolls and more superhero spin-offs, gave up and went home. Oddly enough, twenty years ago, Hollywood was worried that they were all out of blockbusters and everything was going too indy-quirky: The Best Pictures of 1996 were all things like Shine and Fargo and The English Patient, and the only nominee anyone had heard of that year was Tom Cruise for Jerry Maguire. I remember someone saying to me, "Jerry Maguire? That's that IRA film, right?" Er, no. That was Michael Collins, unless she was thinking of Brad Pitt as Frankie McGuire in The Devil's Own, or In the Name of the Father, which these days would mean Wolverine working out his issues with Professor X...
Anyway, Cruise's non-IRA Maguire was released exactly twenty years ago, and planted a phrase in the language: "You had me at hello," memorably intoned by a winsome, chipmunk-cheeked, breathy-voiced newcomer called Renée Zellweger in a breakthrough role, and shortly thereafter reprised by Doctor Evil in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and many lesser parodies. Miss Zellweger is good, but so is Cruise as the eponymous sports agent Jerry Maguire. In the brisk, fractured images and droll voiced-over asides that make up the movie's opening, he sketches his resumé with an eccentric efficiency that puts conventional biopic exposition to shame. On that otherwise all-indy Oscar roster, Jerry Maguire was the sole Best Picture nominee from a major studio, and the reason was probably that for much of its first half it feels like an independent film, or anyway one of those idiosyncratic one-offs that the big studios will occasionally let you get away with — like a sports agent's version of All That Jazz.
Director/writer Cameron Crowe's story is a familiar one: the moral transformation of an empty, driven careerist. Most films in this genre spend the first hour showing us what a slick, unscrupulous rogue the protagonist is, after which his transformation invariably seems both dull and smug. Crowe gives us the hollow man in a few deft preliminaries and then engineers his downfall. As an agent at SMI (Sports Management International), Jerry is renowned as the King of the Housecalls, the man who can get his stars not just top dollar but the "Big Four" endorsements: "Shoe, car, clothing line, soft drink." But a couple of trivial incidents — a baseball client declining a child's request for an autograph because he's only allowed to sign the sponsors' cards — combine with a bad stomach to persuade Jerry, in the middle of the night at a sports agents' convention, that he's undergoing an attack of conscience.
So he gets up and types out a 25-page "mission statement" to inspire his colleagues. His plan for humanizing the business? "Fewer clients. Less money."
Most of us have had those three-in-the-morning moments, but then we go back to bed, re-read the stuff when we wake up, cringe with embarrassment and toss it in the garbage. Unfortunately, Jerry, tackling his dark night of the soul with the same gusto he brings to everything else, rushes out to an all-night printer's, has 110 copies rattled off and gets them distributed to his fellow convention delegates. When he wakes up, he's aghast at what he's done. But it's too late.
So, unlike traditional Hollywood moral transformations, this is about a man who gets suckered into one because of a momentary aberration. What makes it even more distinctive, and plausible, is that Jerry is played by Tom Cruise, who, for all his screen success hitherto, had been little more than a boring midget who can't do sex scenes. Compared to tedious self-valentines like the Mission: Impossible franchise, his performance here is a revelation. Amazingly, for an actor who usually purrs by on permanent Cruise-control, he's at his most compelling when he's behaving like a jerk. The first half-hour is full of stressed-out body language, flaky twitches, jokes that misfire, the sweat of fear — and it's terrific to watch. Crowe even finds a way to play off Cruise's longstanding romantic half-heartedness: he seems literally ground down by his fiancée, a ball-breaking ice-goddess played by Kelly Preston, exhaustingly offering far more than Jerry can muster the enthusiasm for ("If you ever want me to be with another woman for you, I'll do it").
Yet, even as a yuppie triumphalist, he's not one of those cookie-cutter Señor Bastardos from central casting: he knows the names of his firm's loveliest account clerks, including Dorothy, a shy, girlish single mom who, alone of the recipients, actually likes his mission statement. When, in one bout of cellular-phone warfare, he loses his job and all but one of his clients, she impulsively decides to join him.
That's just the first 20 minutes. It's true that, after that, the film settles down to something far more conventional, but it's still fun and rather touching to see Jerry straining to get out from under the glib schmoozer — for one thing, he gets married before he's fallen in love with the girl. But the chemistry between Cruise and Zellweger is palpable, and touching: She is in love with an idealized version of him he has to figure out a way to live up to.
Unfortunately, Crowe, best known for Gen X ensemble pieces like Singles, visibly struggles to provide Cruise with the big star set pieces his contract seems to demand: there's a couple of scenes of Jerry running through airports pumping adrenaline which seem to be there mainly to reassure you this is the same guy who was in Top Gun. But there's a strong supporting cast — not just Cuba Gooding Jr as Jerry's client and Miss Zellweger as Dorothy but also Bonnie Hunt as her sister — that helps keep Jerry Maguire a refreshing and exhilarating reminder that even the biennial franchise monkey on steroids of the endless Impossibles is capable of a great performance in a great film.
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