It’s such a common storyline in romantic movies — comedy or drama — that it’s a cliche. A guy who has spent his whole life being a jerk suddenly realizes what a jerk he is, and that he doesn’t want to be anymore. The revelation and his transformation come after a long hard struggle by those around him to get him to change, taking up the whole of the movie. But eventually, he opens his heart, mends his ways, and everybody lives happily ever after. The end.
In Jerry Maguire, writer-director Cameron Crowe has the good grace to start at the point where the title character, played by Tom Cruise, realizes he’s a sleazeball. And so instead of being yet another trite romantic comedy — though it certainly falls into that genre as well — it becomes a character study of a man who has rejected what he was, but hasn’t yet become what he wants to be. Change, after all, does not happen overnight.
Acid reflux is a different story.
Jerry is a sports agent, and comes to realize that he’s been putting making money above the welfare of his clients. This leads him in turn to realize various other aspects of his personality that he doesn’t like, and he resolves to change — and tries to change his business as well. His manifesto on a new, more personal approach, leads to him getting fired from his firm, and his former protege (Jay Mohr) stealing almost all of his clients. He’s left with one client — Cuba Gooding Jr. as a football player with a chip on his shoulder — and one co-worker, an accountant who genuinely found his mission statement inspiring. This of course is where the romantic angle is worked in, as the accountant is played by Renée Zellweger.
The romantic angle isn’t romanticized, however — if you’ll pardon the expression. Though Jerry Maguire has had his epiphany about his job, he’s still a deeply flawed human being. He’s equally afraid of solitude and emotional intimacy, leading him to take people close to him for granted. He’s also rather desperate, as he has only the one client with which to make his new business work. Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances in this film, portraying a man on the edge of mania, simultaneously idealistic and despairing of meeting his ideals.
The other characters are a study in contrasts. Jerry is a vocal people-pleaser, who is somewhat oblivious to the difference between somebody acting satisfied and genuinely being happy. Gooding’s Rod Tidwell is even more vocal, but the only people he cares about pleasing are himself and his wife. Rod and Jerry spend a great part of the film calling each other out on their bull. Zellweger’s character, Dorothy, is as idealistic as Jerry, and arguably more so having been that way for longer, but she’s quiet and soft-spoken. She has to get her dander up to really speak her mind if she’s upset. Helen Hunt balances her as the older, more cynical sister, and Jay Mohr rounds out the primary characters as the guy who unrepentantly is what Jerry used to be.
There isn’t a bad performance in the group, and the Oscar nomination for Tom Cruise and the win for Cuba Gooding Jr. are both easy to understand. Their performances are electric, and the characters they play feel like real people, which is something of a rarity in the romance genre. Bolstering the film is that this really isn’t a romantic comedy or romantic drama so much as it’s a character piece; although Jerry and Dorothy falling in love is a large part of the narrative thrust, the main story is just Jerry’s growth as a human being, with a sideline of Rod’s growth as well. It makes for a film that should be pleasing to just about any audience member, except perhaps for the extreme cynics.
And yes, it has a few lines that became extremely over-quoted after its release, and yes, those lines are a bit cheesy out of context. But within the film, they work.