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'Jerry Maguire' rambles along on Cruise control

Jerry Maguire January 15, 1997
Web posted at: 3:15 a.m. EST

From Movie Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- This will sound a little nuts, but I've always been bothered by the size of Tom Cruise's neck.

In the majority of his movies he's got that high school football star's circumference that makes his head look like the remains of a Michelangelo balancing on a marble column. The patented steely gaze and cocksure attitude (apply liberally and often) have only encouraged this sports star perception.

A lot of Cruise's big Dramatic Moments, though never less than heartfelt and often very moving, usually spring from a demeanor that better fits a linebacker pumping himself up for the big game. If you want to impersonate Bogart, you say, "Play it again, Sam." If you want to impersonate Cruise, you whoop a lot, pump your fists in the air, and jump around the room.

Well, his neck has gotten smaller, anyway. "Jerry Maguire," writer/director Cameron Crowe's latest effort, is a very puzzling film in which Cruise makes a valiant attempt to tone his image down to a more human scale but can't quite contain his inner linebacker.

The story of a sports agent who decides to turn his kill-or-be-killed existence around and start behaving like a loving, sensitive adult would seem the perfect vehicle for such fine tuning. A major part of the problem is that neither Cruise nor Crowe seems to believe the main conceit of their own movie.

Thanks, you're fired

Cruise plays the title character, a fast-track sports agent who gets a couple hundred phone calls a day and feeds his own ego by feeding the egos of the top professional athletes in the country.

A too-long opening voice-over sequence explains how Jerry, one of the best in the business, has a dark night of the soul and types up a memo for the other people at his agency. In the memo, Jerry suggests a new world view. He writes that he and his co-workers should no longer scratch and claw to make millions of dollars for a faceless mass of muscle-bound warriors. He sees the road to enlightenment as hinging on just a chosen few people, to whom the agent should give personal, sympathetic attention.

Everyone applauds the memo, and Jerry gets fired. The only other employee who will follow him to the Promised Land of his own agency is Dorothy, a bored accountant by day and lonely single mom by night, who's played with a fine, open honesty by Renee Zellweger.

Though, initially, Dorothy isn't leaving her job out of a romantic inclination towards Jerry, Zellweger shades the character with the dreamy quality of a smart school girl with a secret crush. She's responding to raw charisma, but almost accidentally ends up with something far more substantial.

Decent proposal

Especially nice are a couple of endearing scenes with the criminally under-used Bonnie Hunt as Dorothy's forever worried sister. Dorothy is cute, sweet, and honest in a very movie-like way. Do you think Jerry will fall for her? Does Dick Butkus have a big neck?

Cruise would have been wise to gauge his own performance against that of his unknown co-star. Though Zellweger is asked far too many times to cast a dewy-eyed gaze at Cruise, she communicates a kind of core decency that is supposed to be the very thing that Jerry is striving for.

Cruise is very good in small moments with Dorothy's son, played charmingly by Jonathan Lipnicki, but in some of the bigger scenes his performance is so wrong-headed you can't imagine what he was thinking.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the only athlete (a receiver for the Arizona Cardinals) who will stay with Jerry after the firing, is a sort of Deion Sanders with a heart, and he chews up the role. The problem is that his motor-mouth bravado is practically duplicated by Cruise every time the two have a scene together.

A kinder, gentler shark

The heart of the movie deals with Jerry's relationship with, and eventual marriage to, Dorothy. But all the decency these scenes generate in the character is wiped out every time he hits a locker room or a coach's office.

Early on, Jerry laments that he's become nothing more than "just another shark in a suit," but for all the script's laboring over the infinite possibilities of human growth, what Jerry ultimately ends up becoming is a smaller shark in a suit ... who also loves his wife.

That's a real stumbling point because none of the other agents are ever dealt with as anything more than backstabbing money grabbers. It seems likely that one or two of these guys, regardless of how monstrous they may be at the office, still have the capacity to care for their families. Jerry is the only agent we're allowed to see in a human context, and, frankly, this is very convenient and very phony.

Thematically, the whole movie ultimately comes off phony -- even after Jerry has struggled for over two hours to become a better human being, his much-sought-after true happiness is triggered by the signing of a $10 million contract. One can imagine Jerry whooping and jumping around the room when he tells his wife about it.

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