Steve Remo’s eyes open. He lies on a hospital bed, wearing a head bandage and a neck brace, recovering from a concussion in a hockey game. Remembering his own name only after his wife furtively whispers it to him a few times, he then proceeds to identify the other people in the room. After recognizing his wife and son, his eyes stop on a smiling man standing awkwardly at the foot of the bed. Steve pauses, briefly unsure, before saying, “My agent!” The scene concludes by taking a jab at a system in which professional athletes destroy their bodies for a paycheck, but those early beats have always surprised me a little. The tempo lands somewhere between the two expected possibilities for this kind of scene: (1) the athlete, obsessed with his career, recognizes his agent first, or (2) being more of a family man, he can’t seem to place this greasy hanger-on at all. But since this is the sports agent’s story, the middle ground is the most interesting place to be. His job description, ideally, makes him a ceremonial member of the family, intensely concerned with his client’s well-being. But as the blocking of the scene indicates, the relationship is stiff and artificial. The agent’s presence is both intrusive and not intimate enough.
The title role in Jerry Maguire is still probably the definitive characterization of Tom Cruise’s career. As the movie would have it, the job of an agent basically consists of being skilled on the phone, memorizing statistics, and knowing how to glad-hand. The slick veneer over a hollow core is something Cruise can pull off brilliantly, but naturally the movie’s goal is to awaken deeper feelings within him. The self-described breakdown happens at the outset of the film, with Jerry’s impulsive written declaration of principles, his “mission statement.” Styled as an ethical epiphany, the document proclaims that recovering the soul of his business will require slowing things down. It gets copied and passed to all of his peers, and some part of Jerry knows that he’s overstepped and will soon be fired. Almost the entirety of the movie will transpire before he realizes that his career downfall is the pathway to the personal rebirth he claimed to want. Part of this culmination will be falling in love with the woman who believed in his ideals even more than he did at first. It’s in this sense that Jerry Maguire is a reluctant romantic comedy. It follows its lead character’s ambivalence step for step.
Jerry’s two crucial relationships are with Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger), the secretary who believes in him, and Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the NFL wide receiver mired in contract negotiations who becomes Jerry’s only remaining client. Both of these relationships begin in a puzzling intermediate state, as well. With Dorothy, Jerry is attentive and observant but not quite responsive to her adoration and flirting. He accepts her help sincerely, but just after his dramatic exit from the agency, the two of them stand awkwardly in an elevator next to an amorous couple communicating with sign language. This is one of a few times that Dorothy, the overworked widow and mother of a perniciously adorable little boy (Jonathan Lipnicki), will stumble across public displays of affection — signs from above that she needs to find someone. Meanwhile, Rod has the ability to work Jerry into a desperate frenzy to keep him as a loyal client, but for much of the movie they don’t understand each other. (“I love black people,” Jerry shouts over the phone at Rod’s insistence — a sentence designed to ring hollow.) The affection and respect between Rod and his wife Marcee (Regina King) will show Jerry what love looks like.
The director, Cameron Crowe, obviously loves both Dorothy and Rod, but the movie admires and enjoys them from a certain distance while staying firmly rooted inside Jerry’s head. His transformation couldn’t possibly happen overnight, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with his backsliding. After he gets fired for writing the mantra, “Fewer clients, less money,” he rushes into a bidding war with his rival (Jay Mohr), trying to salvage all of his old clients and then some, if possible. But as he struggles even to keep Rod Tidwell happy, he watches the call waiting lights on his phone get gradually doused. Even after this rebuke, he will spend some time overlooking Rod in favor of more lucrative prospects. Likewise, his relationship with Dorothy can only blossom into a romance after his avaricious fiancée Avery (Kelly Preston) punches him in the face and calls him a loser. Even then, Dorothy will dress for a date like she’s in “an Audrey Hepburn movie,” while he wears jeans, the two of them never quite sure if their relationship is strictly professional or not. The most daring part of the movie comes when Jerry and Dorothy suddenly get married, even though their feelings for each other are still clearly unequal. Jerry seems bent on carrying this unromantic romance as far as it can go before it snaps.
Jerry Maguire fits both its protagonist and its director. It’s breezy fun, heartfelt but not especially probing. The docudrama filigrees (an early montage of promising juvenile athletes; the direct-to-camera axioms of Jerry’s sports agent mentor) situate the film in the real world, a light satire of the ballooning sports industry in the 1990s. But these issues are quickly set up and resolved. The lovable story of personal growth is the real focus. At one point, Jerry attests that he’s “not really a hugger,” but he’ll end up hugging just about everyone else in the movie before it’s all over. The film itself finds a satisfying middle ground, pleasant and funny but still seeing Jerry’s redemption through to the end. The use of music is a great example of this balance. Crowe doesn’t shy away from potentially overexposed popular music, but he finds ways to make his choices work in the moment — Rod singing “What’s Going On” at Jerry and Dorothy’s wedding, Jerry searching and finding “Free Fallin'” on the car radio. All these balances and tensions couldn’t be maintained all the way through, though. Crowe finally allows the romance to flourish in the film’s climax, a scene that, catchphrases and all, is still supremely lovely. And then there’s an echo of the Steve Remo scene, when Rod receives word of a new contract with his team. Overjoyed, he begins pouring out love for his family and teammates, then hesitating, and finally naming Jerry Maguire as well. This time, improbably, the sentiment feels just right.