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On the Corner of Sports and Film: Jerry Maguire

I’ve been writing pop culture pieces on this site for nearly two years and it’s sometimes felt a bit shoehorned in surrounded by pieces about LeBron James, Corey Kluber or Johnny Manziel.

But as much as I love films and TV, I work in sports and I’m also a pretty big sports fan, so it made sense to start a new series here that examines a different sports film each month. They’ll run the gamut of different eras, different sports and I’ll try to mix it up with films I’ve seen many times and some I’ve never seen before.

To kick it off though we’ll open with a film that’s not just one of my favorite sports movies, but one of my favorite movies in general.

Jerry Maguire” doesn’t really jump out as the quintessential sports film. Like “Raging Bull,” another film that will hopefully be discussed in this space, it kind of transcends the genre but it still feels very much like a sports movie.

In the case of “Jerry Maguire,” it’s a hard film to categorize because it possesses elements of not just sports movies, but drama, comedy and romance. If you had to pigeon-hole it into a category, you could say it’s a romantic dramedy about people who work in sports. It certainly has a lot to say about sports in America and the most surprising thing watching it again is that even though it is nearly 20 years old (it was released in the fall of 1996) the film’s depiction of the professional sports world doesn’t feel dated at all.

Sure, the salary figures negotiated for self-centered wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) are quaint by today’s standards, but everything else surrounding the disillusionment of sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) is spot on and, if nothing else, has only gotten worse.

We meet Jerry at a low moment as the cynicism and superficiality of working in a business fixated on contract extensions, endorsements and branding has gotten to him. His job forces him to lie for the benefit of his clients when they’re arrested or urge them to come back too quickly from an injury and his conscience has become too difficult to ignore. The greed-obsessed world Jerry inhabits is an accurate reflection of the real life version and it’s gotten more perverse today, stretching beyond the professional realm as the NCAA cashes in on marketing the Final Four and College Football Playoff.
“Who had I become? Just another shark in a suit?” Jerry laments in the film’s opening scenes and this moral crisis leads to him penning a professionally suicidal “mission statement” emphasizing fewer clients and more personal attention.

Most films have their main character embark on a journey that culminates with some sort of epiphany. In “Jerry Maguire,” that happens before the opening credits have even finished.
It’s a credit to the originality of writer/director Cameron Crowe’s screenplay that he has Jerry stumble upon a revelation so early in the film, but all it does is set the stage for deeper conflicts to resolve as the story progresses.

Little of this works without Cruise in the lead role. Cruise has been a star for more than 30 years, but by my count, this is one of only a couple performances in his career, along with maybe “Rain Man,” where he plays a modern regular average Joe.

Because he’s Tom Cruise he’s never anything less than likable here, but it’s rare for Cruise to play someone this flawed and display this much vulnerability. After losing his most important client on the eve of the NFL Draft and breaking up with his fiancee, Jerry whines to Rod while drinking in an airport lounge, “What are you doing with me, Rod? I’m finished. I am fucked. You see this jacket I’m wearing? You like it? ‘Cause I don’t really need it because I am cloaked in failure!” It’s a very funny moment because Jerry is completely pathetic at this point, but also because it’s rare we see Cruise play someone in this sorry a state.

The contrast between Jerry and Rod is one of the most interesting in the film as the pair possess contrasting limitations. Jerry has realized at the film’s onset how he wants to move forward with his professional life but is unable to figure out how to have any sort of intimacy or connection in his developing relationship with Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), a single mother accountant who follows Jerry when he’s fired from his agency. Rod is a model husband and father, but possesses an inferiority complex that keeps him from reaching his potential on the football field.

Cuba Gooding Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance and the way he and Cruise play off each other is fantastic. Both see the missing piece in each other’s life and their relationship develops from a professional one to genuine friendship, leading to a great payoff in one the film’s final scenes when Rod finally receives his new contract. A line like “You are my ambassador of quan,” would sound ridiculous in any other context, but here it somehow packs an emotional wallop.

And it’s one of a host of other great lines as “Jerry Maguire” has got to be one of the most quotable films of all time – “Show me the money,” “you complete me,” “you had me at hello,” “help me help you” and the list goes on and on.

“Jerry Maguire” came out when Crowe was at the peak of his creative success, coming several years after “Say Anything” and “Singles” and a few years before “Almost Famous,” which is one of my two or three favorite films of all time. A former teenage Rolling Stone reporter in the 1970s, Crowe would seem an unlikely choice to pen a believable behind-the-scenes depicition of professional sports, but he has a knack for creating likable, three-dimensional characters regardless of the space they inhabit through small touches you don’t see in other films.

Early on here, after receiving a verbal commitment of support from a client, an elated Jerry is driving along the highway scanning the radio for a song that can fit his current mood. It’s an opportunity for Crowe to employ his musical knowledge, from The Pretenders’ “Angel of the Morning” to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” but it’s also a relatable moment for anyone who has tried looking for a song to sing along to on the radio at the top of their lungs.

Another part of Crowe’s success in achieving authenticity is in the number of real-life sports figures that make cameos, like Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Mel Kiper Jr. and Al Michaels, giving the sports world he creates a lived-in feel. Crowe also finds room for appearances by associates from his rock and roll past, like his former boss, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, as the head of Jerry’s agency, and recently deceased Eagles frontman Glenn Frey as the Arizona Cardinals general manager.

The whole film culminates in typical sports movie fashion with “the big game,” in this case Rod’s appearance
on Monday Night Football. Rod scores a game-winning touchdown but suffers a seemingly life-threatening injury. When he wakes up after several tense minutes, he can’t contain his joyful emotions and breaks down in tears after the game speaking with his wife, Marcie (Regina King, whose profile has blown up since appearing here with roles on “The Leftovers” and “American Crime”).
Seeing Rod’s bond with his family is the wake up call Jerry needs to repair his relationshp with Dorothy. His big speech to her that culminates with “you complete me,” has always seemed a little cheesy, but on closer examination it’s a perfect summation of the film’s message: any kind of success you experience won’t feel complete without people you love to share it with.

It’s a lesson Jerry has learned by the film’s end and as Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm,” kicks in it’s impossible to not walk away smiling as we get one final encapsulating quote from Jerry’s mentor Dicky Fox:

“Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you MY kind of success.”
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