Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) is a man who can never say I love you, or at least can never mean it. From the moment Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) forces him to yell ‘Show me the Money’ like he means it, we hug our pillows and hope that he will eventually be able to shout ‘I love you’ with as much gusto. How can we be so naïve? The walls of Gooding Jr.’s dressing room are covered with meaningless motivational plaques like ‘A Negative Attitude is a Positive Nothing’ but why does Jerry’s impassioned ‘Shut up, play the game, play it from your heart’ mean something to us? Surely it’s dribble and the script is pure rom-com slush. Why do we invest ourselves so earnestly in this one?
Even fans of the genre suspect that anyone who enjoys romantic comedy too much is, at best, a bit of a sap or, at worst, plain weird. As Tom Cruise sits in first-class describing his action-movie-style marriage proposal, Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger) is back in economy, peering down the centre-aisle and snuffling popcorn. Is this not a pretty cruel reflection of the film’s target audience? The seminal question raised in High Fidelity was ‘Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?’. Substitute music for ‘romantic comedy’ and you might find a hint towards the peculiar depth of this film.
If you’ve seen the film four or five times then you might remember that scene when, elated after managing to keep hold of a client, Jerry is tuning his radio and the riff from ‘Bitch’ by the Rolling Stones doesn’t quite do it for him but Tom Petty’s ‘Free Falling’ touches a nerve. The soundtrack is provided by men who are too man to cry, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. More often than not, it is Jerry himself who is choosing the soundtrack to his own life. Even though the tracks sweat machismo, they somehow seem right because they are chosen by and for someone so anxious and self-critical. Again, don’t we see something of our own impulse to cinema-fy our love-life?
It takes a while for Jerry to find his soundtrack; in the same way the film takes a while to get started. For the first hour or so it does not seem to make up its mind about what kind of story it wants to tell. It is a film full of false starts and it knows it. The flawless ten-minute sequence that opens the film feels like a pitch for a different movie. A dissatisfied sports agent finds out he is ‘just another shark in a suit’ and sets out to ‘start his life’ for real. We see Tom Cruise’s mission statement bashed out in an inspiring montage of running in the rain, wiping away tears and tapping on 1990s computers. It surprises us how short this narrative lasts, but, then again, the ‘memo’ wasn’t all that hard to write. For the audience, the pace-y opening was an easy roller-coaster to ride. Jerry Maguire, when it gets going, is a struggle towards a happy ending. The emphasis upon characters’ efforts to face up to reality rather than live in fantasy are strangely brutal for a film that sells itself as a simple romantic tear-jerker. ‘On the surface, everything looks fine’ says Dorothy. It’s a frighteningly honest couple who ask each other, half-an-hour away from what we can only hope is a happy finish, ‘why do you love me?’.
‘We enjoy watching other people invent their own love stories; Jerry Maguire reminds us, gently, what we already know: that it’s all a bit of a fantasy. So the film has to be loud and cheesy and full of crap songs. It’s about hearing clichés: the words of Jerry’s old mentor, or the lovers who tell each other ‘you complete me’ or the lyrics of a Springsteen song.It’s a rom-com that we’ve seen plenty of times before but this one offers us some reflection. It seems to say ‘This is how we love and it is entirely unoriginal’.
Jerry is right, ‘we live in a cynical world’. But the fantasies and the clichés matter: we can’t help replaying and regurgitating them, rattling them back to someone we love. We’ve just got to deal with it, pay attention and take it seriously.’