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Jerry Rigged

Tom Cruise
Agent's Agreement: Tom Cruise tries to make sports agents sympathetic in Cameron Crowe's new movie, "Jerry Maguire."

Photo by Andrew Cooper

Even Tom Cruise can't salvage the soul of a sports agent in 'Jerry Maguire'

By Allen Barra

A 135-MINUTE MOVIE about a warmhearted sports agent? To me, that's a contradiction in terms--like, I don't know, maybe a vegetarian sports bar. Jerry Maguire starts with Jerry (Tom Cruise), going through a mid-30s identity crises--"I lost the ability to bullshit," he says. Don't worry, the movie does it for him.

Jerry flips out and writes a 25-page memo about rediscovering that the key to the business of representing athletes is "personal relationships." The agency Jerry works for looks like it employs more people than the New York Jets draw at Giants Stadium, so it's easy to wonder, "What's the problem? They've got enough agents to give every athlete in the world personal treatment."

But Jerry Maguire is one of those movies in which a crisis appears regularly so that the hero can be tested. This is what we've all been waiting for: a movie about the dark night of a sports agent's soul.

Part of the problem is that Cruise doesn't seem to have enough depth for a soul. Cruise has his critical following, but I've always found that people who defend him as a great actor are the same people who try to tell you that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is great TV or that Clint Eastwood is a great filmmaker. As an actor, Cruise is all surface response; he reads his lines well, exactly the way they seem to be written, with no change in modulation or mood. He tries very hard, but the trying makes me tired when I watch him.

I always get the feeling his characters have had too much coffee; when he does his inevitable flip-out scene, he's got no where to flip to because he's been so hyper all along.

Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Jerry Maguire, but it seems less like something by the creator of Singles than it does like a film typically tailored around Tom Cruise. Jerry gets himself fired for telling his company that it should, in effect, downsize by taking fewer athletes as clients and thus make less money. He then acts completely shocked that his company would react by dumping him.

Jerry wants to have a personal relationship with his clients, to spend more time with them and to tailor his deals to their individual needs, but when you see him doing this, the question naturally arises: "Is this the kind of wise guy I want representing me when I go up against George Steinbrenner?"

Touchy-Feely Slime

THE MOVIE never gets around to answering the question of why Jerry is a sports agent in the first place. Watching him with the young son of the secretary he falls for (Renee Zellweger), it looks as if his real career calling is camp counselor.

Sports agents are rapidly replacing lawyers and TV talk show hosts as the objects of public scorn, mostly because the sports press insists on investing them with far greater power than they have (high salaries are largely the result of free agency, which the agents did nothing to bring about).

Agents make huge amounts of money by squeezing teams with the same tactics the teams use to squeeze the players, and often, they become the focus of anger and resentment when a popular player moves to another team. If fans get mad at the athletes for making all that money for playing "kids' games," how much more contemptible are the men who make millions by doing nothing more than representing rich, spoiled brats who play kids' games?

It's an agent's job to be ruthless in his clients' interest and to hell with the team, the press and even the fans. Cruise, of course, cannot play someone like this, or at any rate, won't. So about 20 minutes into the film, we stop getting the inside stuff about money, power and sports politics, which is what we came for, and start getting a touchy-feely movie about a decent guy who just wants to settle down with his family and his one client, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a talented wide receiver with a great big chip on his magnificent shoulders.

Jerry Maguire becomes a black-white buddy movie with Rod, who steals the movie (it ought to be about him), pushing Jerry to get him more money while Jerry pushes Rod to be a better person. The picture's fundamental dishonesty is summed up by Jerry's harangue at Rod: "You don't have that $10 million contract because you don't play with your heart"--heart in this case meaning Rod won't talk to fans and reporters.

See, Rod, unlike Jerry, is in it for the money. That Rod might not have that $10 million because he has a lousy quarterback or a dip for an agent isn't considered. Did Michael Irvin get his millions because he has "heart" or because he can go over the middle into double coverage?

To understand how fundamentally off-base Jerry Maguire is, take a look at the new HBO show called Arliss, created and starring Robert Wuhl as Arliss Michaels, a slimy, unprincipled sports agent who is sort of a mythic projection of superagent Leigh Steinberg on a lower moral plane.

In a recent episode, Ken Howard (looking eerily like a bloated Mickey Mantle) played Rocky Frimaggio, a cynical ex-big leaguer who can't lick the bottle. Arliss, awestruck by the chance to help his former idol, gets him a job selling his sperm on the Shopping Channel--free gift with each purchase: a Rocky Frimaggio batting tee. That's the kind of agent you want sitting across from George Steinbrenner when your contract is up for negotiation.

Jerry Maguire (R; 135 min.), directed and written by Cameron Crowe, photographed by Janusz Kaminski and starring Tom Cruise.

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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