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Cameron Crowe, the writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the writer-director of Singles and Say Anything (by far his perkiest work), aims to generate serious comedy from a superficial man's existential awakening. Or does he? Maybe he wants us to see Maguire as a potentially deep man chagrined at his superficial life. It's as difficult to tell what he's targeting as it is for Maguire to figure out whether he's having a breakdown or a breakthrough. Crowe hits us right away with all the ammo needed to demolish Maguire as a moral overachiever. He's a professional charmer who devalues terms of endearment until they mean no more than terms of a contract. He's engaged to a red-hot vixen (Kelly Preston) who treats him like a pelvic version of an Ab Roller. And during a joke documentary of his ex-girlfriends at a bachelor party, he's portrayed as a guy who can't stand to be alone or to be intimate.
Whether this is a hollow man or an arrested teenager, Crowe does want us to see that there's a flicker of humanity inside the sleek grinning shell. But Maguire comes off as a top gun who has all the right moves but needs to finesse interviews with vampires before he can pull off his mission impossible and thunder back into his risky business. Jerry Maguire is a Tom Cruise mea culpa that comes off as an advertisement for himself. If it worked, it would amount to an I-told-you-so at those who have found Cruise's presence hollow, his "serious" work histrionic, and his lighter moments mechanical. Instead, it could be used as an indictment -- a prime example of promising material that's been Cruisified.
The star is all too perfect when Maguire performs his practiced ingratiation on colleagues and clients. His rah-rah raps and marathon phone calls have a focus and ersatz vehemence that could be mistaken for electricity, but Cruise isn't imaginative enough to transform his shenanigans into satire. It's unfair to say that there's no mental life in his performance, but what there is amounts to calculation. In a crowd-pleasing bit, he addresses an audience of office workers after being fired -- he says he's sure they expect him to flip out, then executes a vertiginous near-collapse before perfectly righting himself. The problem is, we don't expect Cruise to flip out, or for there to be any consequence to his impersonation of flipping out. He's the opposite of a conniption artist like Mel Gibson. He's an actor who's totally consumed in the physical action of the moment, and in his case that's not a compliment. Jerry Maguire tries to barge his way into humanity: He splits with his winner-fixated fiancee, dedicates himself body and soul to Roy Tidwell, marries dear Dorothy Boyd, and lovingly parents her adorable, bespectacled towhead (ticklishly played by six-year-old Jonathan Lipnicki). Part of Crowe's point is that Maguire can't change overnight; real progress comes in baby steps. Unfortunately, at the not-so-grand finale, we're still watching a character (and an actor) try to will his way into the human race. When the script allows him to enter, it's unbelievable: Crowe pads the humanity curve and gives Maguire and Cruise A's for effort.
The opening sequence, up to the climax of Cruise's "flip-out," is exhilarating; Crowe has a knack for orchestrating observational humor into comic cadenzas. And he has a genuine talent for working delightfully loopy characters into the margins: The one uncomplicated delight here is a jazz-loving nanny (or "child-care technician") named Chad (Todd Louiso), who looks a bit like a human Chris Elliott and tries to introduce Maguire to the delights of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But Crowe is a lax dramatist; his instincts go into the casting and the ornamentation. Renee Zellweger (who is wonderful in the forthcoming The Whole Wide World) is a smart choice for Dorothy. She's so unconventional and full of feeling that she turns cartoonish double takes into lyric flights. Kept busy by her little boy and kept honest by her acerbic divorced older sister (Bonnie Hunt), Zellweger's Dorothy refuses to succumb to life's disappointments; she's wide open to inspiration, and she takes Maguire's mission statement to heart. Too bad Crowe doesn't give her a good reason to fall so hard for Maguire, except that he's a dreamboat like Tom Cruise. She's too many different things in turn: a hard-luck case who sees the glamour side of her industry as a fairy-tale realm, a practical girl who can put Maguire's books and house in order, a romantic who wants to bring out the best in her husband, and a grownup who's ready to call it quits when an adult Jerry doesn't emerge. Only Zellweger's odd infantile-sexy personality and her ability to be simultaneously malleable and solid keep the character from evaporating. But not even Zellweger can save the climactic reconciliation scene. To borrow a phrase from Tin Cup, when Crowe gives her a defining moment, the definition is shit.
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