Cruisified

Jerry Maguire
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, and Cuba Gooding Jr. Opens Friday, Dec. 13, at area theaters.

Some amusing stuff about sports agentry drowns in the emotional shallows of Jerry Maguire, which stars Tom Cruise (in the title role) as a hotshot deal-maker whose first bout of conscience torpedoes his future at his firm, the monolithic Sports Management International. After visiting a hospitalized hockey player who skates hurt in order to earn a bonus, Maguire has a breakdown, er, breakthrough. Realizing that he hates himself -- or rather, "his place in the world" -- he pulls a near-all-nighter and writes a mission statement for the agency, "The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business." The gist of it is that sports agents should be humane and nurturing, cutting down on the number of clients and giving the remaining ones more quality time. A week later, he's fired. With the help of a 26-year-old accountant and single mother, Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), he sets up shop as an independent. His one trusty client is Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals with good stats, a bad attitude, and no commercial profile.

Cameron Crowe, the writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the writer/director of Singles and Say Anything ... (by far his perkiest work), aims to generate serious comedy from a superficial man's existential awakening. Or does he? Maybe he wants us to see Maguire as a potentially deep man chagrined at his superficial life. It's as difficult to tell what he's targeting as it is for Maguire to figure out whether he's having a breakdown or a breakthrough. Crowe hits us right away with all the ammo you need to demolish Maguire as a moral overachiever. He's a professional charmer who devalues terms of endearment until they mean no more than terms in a contract. He's engaged to a red-hot vixen (Kelly Preston) who treats him like a pelvic version of an Ab Roller. And during a joke documentary of his ex-girlfriends at a bachelor party, he's portrayed as a guy who can't stand to be alone or to be intimate.

Whether this is a hollow man or an arrested teen-ager, Crowe does want us to see that there's a flicker of humanity inside the sleek grinning shell. But Maguire comes off as a top gun who has all the right moves but needs to finesse interviews with vampires before he can pull off his mission impossible and thunder back into his risky business. This movie is a Tom Cruise mea culpa that comes out as an advertisement for himself. If it worked, it would amount to an I-told-you-so at those who've found Cruise's presence hollow, his "serious" work histrionic, and his lighter moments mechanical. Instead, it could be used as an indictment -- a prime example of promising material that's been Cruisified.

The star is all-too-perfect when Maguire performs his practiced ingratiation on colleagues and clients. His rah-rah raps and marathon phone calls have a focus and ersatz vehemence that could be mistaken for electricity, but Cruise isn't imaginative enough to transform his shenanigans into satire. It's unfair to say that there's no mental life in his performance, but what there is amounts to calculation. In a crowd-pleasing bit, he addresses an audience of office workers after he's fired -- he says he's sure they expect him to flip out, then executes a vertiginous near-collapse before perfectly righting himself. The problem is, we don't expect Cruise to flip out, or for there to be any consequence to his impersonation of flipping out. (He's the opposite of a conniption artist like Mel Gibson.) Cruise is an actor who's totally consumed in the physical action of the moment, and in his case that's not a compliment. Jerry Maguire tries to barge his way into mankind: He splits with his winner-fixated fiancee, dedicates himself body and soul to Roy Tidwell, marries dear Dorothy Boyd, and lovingly parents her adorable bespectacled towhead (ticklishly played by 6-year-old Jonathan Lipnicki). Part of Crowe's point is that Maguire can't change overnight; real progress comes in baby steps. Unfortunately, at the not-so-grand finale, we're still watching a character (and an actor) try to will his way into the human race. When the script allows him to enter, it's unbelievable: Crowe pads the humanity curve and gives Maguire and Cruise A's for effort.

The opening sequence, up to the climax of Cruise's "flip-out," is exhilarating: Crowe has a knack for orchestrating observational humor into comic cadenzas. And he has a genuine talent for working delightfully loopy characters into the margins: The one uncomplicated delight here is a jazz-loving nanny (or "child-care technician") named Chad (Todd Louiso), who looks a bit like a human Chris Elliott and tries to introduce Maguire to the delights of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But Crowe is a lax dramatist; his instincts go into the casting and the curlicues. Renee Zellweger (who is wonderful in the forthcoming The Whole Wide World) is a smart choice for Dorothy. She's so unconventional and full of feeling that she turns cartoonish double-takes into lyric flights. Kept busy by her little boy and kept honest by her acerbic divorced older sister (Bonnie Hunt), Zellweger's Dorothy refuses to succumb to life's disappointments; she's wide-open to inspiration, and she takes Maguire's mission statement to heart. Too bad Crowe doesn't give her a good reason to fall so hard for Maguire, except that he's a dreamboat like Tom Cruise. She's too many different things in turn: a hard-luck case who sees the glamour side of her industry as a fairy-tale realm; a practical girl who can put Maguire's books and house in order; a romantic who wants to bring out the best in her husband and a grown-up who's ready to call it quits when an adult Jerry doesn't emerge. Only Zellweger's odd infantile-sexy ambience, and her ability to be simultaneously malleable and solid, keeps the character from evaporating. But not even Zellweger can save the climactic reconciliation scene. To borrow a phrase from Tin Cup, when Crowe gives her a defining moment, the definition is shit.

In what could be an homage to that sappy aurally challenged romance Children of a Lesser God, Boyd and Maguire see a deaf couple sign their love, and Boyd, having had a hearing-impaired aunt, explains to Maguire that the man told his lover, "You complete me." Crowe charges every positive character in the movie to complete Maguire -- and they're all inordinately happy to accept the assignment. The one who has the most fun with it is Tidwell, who'd be a jolly brown giant were he the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound prototype of an NFL wide receiver, and not a 5-foot-10-inch mighty mite. Gooding imbues Tidwell with a small man's pride and rage, which is inherently funny when put inside a scrapper's physique. Gooding has the gusto that Cruise (for all his huffing and puffing) lacks; when Gooding screams, "Show me the money," you know Tidwell isn't just being mercenary, but expressing his need to provide for his family and stake out his place in the sports universe. Yet Crowe softens up even this mini-Jovian figure. He tries to milk poignancy as well as applause out of this little big man's moment of glory.

When Maguire has his mission statement bound at a 24-hour CopyMat, he comments that the plain white lettering on the solid blue cover makes it look like Catcher in the Rye. Salinger must be a touchstone for Crowe, who has an uncanny ear for the absurdity and latent poetry in the vernacular. But Jerry Maguire pushes him halfway into Jay McInerney territory: The movie is an uneasy blend of drug-free, marriage-minded faux-innocence and the post-collegiate knowingness that seduced millions of readers into buying Bright Lights, Big City as the second-generation yuppie truth. (In Jerry Maguire, as always, Cruise makes the tawdry palatable. If Cruise had played the hero in the movie version of Bright Lights instead of that real actor, Michael J. Fox -- who actually has complicated emotions, as he showed brilliantly in Casualties of War -- it might have been a hit.)

Jerry Maguire is surfacey and vague: a compendium of maverick-against-the-system and life-of-a-salesman cliches, gussied up with sports-talk parodies and in-jokes. Maguire is supposed to be hepped-up and desperate, like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success; cherishable, like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (Crowe visually quotes from that movie's office scenes); and triumphant-virtue incarnate, like the hero of a feel-good Capra flick. The movie kicks off with up-to-the-minute brashness, but in the end it's sentimental and conventional. In its own breezy way, Jerry Maguire uses the single mother as the repository of true morality (like married mothers in pre-Graduate movies). She's the fashionable new archetype -- Madonna with sex appeal and child.

There's nothing sleazy about the film, or even about Cruise's Plasticine presence. But their all-purpose affability doesn't take you anywhere you might not go while daydreaming over a Wheaties box. Cunningly balancing the agony of defeat with the thrill of victory, Jerry Maguire tells America's audience what it wants to hear these days: that nice guys can finish first. To skeptics, the movie proves that niceness is overrated.

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