EVERYONE HAS a conscience, but if you don't use it, you'd lose it—at least, that's the assumption behind the romantic comedy hit Jerry Maguire. Jerry (Tom Cruise) is a hyperactive, hot-shot agent at Sports Management International (SMI), fielding 264 phone calls a day as he represents 73 big-bucks clients. But the money-grubbing, impersonal way he does business has made him hate himself.
His first twinge of conscience is provoked during a visit to a hockey player-client who's been hospitalized after skating with an injury in order to earn a bonus. When the player's young son pleads with Jerry to make his father stop risking his life for extra money, the agent masks his greed with a smooth string of lies. The kid responds by flipping him the finger.
Jerry is troubled, and late one night, in a luxury hotel room, he suffers “a breakdown or a breakthrough.” Almost as therapy, he whacks out a 27-page mission statement for his agency entitled, The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business, and distributes it to all his SMI associates. An impassioned plea for a return to morality in the selling of big-league sports, it's at first greeted with praise. But, upon reflection, SMI decides the difference in their approaches is too great and fires him.
Their cruelly chosen messenger is Jerry's former protégé, Bob Sugar (Jerry Mohr), who fast-talks almost all of Jerry's former clients into deserting him and staying with the agency. “It's not show friends, it's show business,” Sugar cracks.
The one exception is Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), an African-American wide receiver in the last year of his contract with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. Short for his position, unappreciated, and with a big chip on his shoulder, Tidwell seems almost more trouble than he's worth. His favorite expression is: “Show me the Money!” But Jerry's only way back into the big time is to renegotiate the player's next contract into the eight-figure range—an uphill battle.
Jerry's determined to run his own operation according to the principles outlined in his idealistic manifesto, but none of his former high-flying colleagues will risk joining him. However, a low-level, mousy accountant, Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) is inspired by Jerry's moral vision and is willing to make the leap of faith. She and Jerry set up shop in Jerry's apartment.
Jerry's beautiful blonde fiancée, Avery Bishop (Kelly Preston) sees things differently. A tart-tongued, fast-track publicist, she despises losers. They soon break up. Jerry's attempt to reinvent himself as a moral person seems to have brought him nothing but trouble. His only consolation is Dorothy, who's always ready to offer him “a soft shoulder to cry on.” A 26-year-old widow with a young son, Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki), she lives with her older psychologist sister Laurel (Bonnie Hunt), whose specialty is divorced women's therapy groups.
Dorothy falls for Jerry almost immediately. “You had me at hello,” she later remarks. Jerry's feelings towards her, while appreciative, are less intense. During his bachelor days, he was characterized as a man who couldn't stand either to be alone or to be intimate. Where he is emotionally scattered, she is centered and in touch with her feelings, and once they work through the ambiguities of an employer-employee relationship, a romance of sorts blossoms. And when Jerry and Ray become instant buddies, a family unit is formed.
Tidwell remains Jerry's only client, so money is tight. To cut back on overhead, Dorothy wants to quit Jerry's operation and take a job elsewhere. Unable to face being alone, Jerry proposes marriage, and they quickly tie the knot.
Jerry and Tidwell have developed a stormy relationship with a different set of expectations of each other, conditioned perhaps by their differing racial backgrounds. Whenever the decibel level gets high, Jerry assumes they're fighting, but Tidwell thinks they're just beginning to communicate.
Tidwell, who was raised by a single mom, suggests Jerry treat Dorothy with openness and honesty. In turn, Jerry tells the wide receiver to fix his attitude problem if he wants to pull down the big money. Neither wants to listen to the other's advice. Jerry's marriage turns sour, and he and Dorothy separate.
Then Tidwell surprises everyone with a change in attitude and some fancy playing. Jerry is able to use this to get him the sweet deal he's always wanted. But the victory means nothing to him unless he can share it so he and Dorothy reunite. The movie ends with Jerry back on top.
The message seems to be that sometimes good guys come in first and can get the girl as well. It's all too easy, but the happy ending isn't the problem. After all, it's a Hollywood romantic comedy, and the genre has certain rules. The movie's weakness is that writer-director Cameron Crowe (Singles and Fast Times at Ridgmont High) wants to show the awakening of a moral sensibility without any spiritual component to the experience.
Jerry seems never to have been exposed to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Its standards offer him little guidance in moments of trouble. As a consequence, the movie doesn't associate conscience with ethical choices, the heart of any moral code. Instead Crow links morality almost exclusively to emotional honesty and the ability to connect with another person. These are good qualities, to be sure, but it's a very new-age approach. It's almost as if the character flaws of Jerry and his peers could be eradicated by extensive touchy-feely therapy. Religion and philosophy appear to have nothing to offer.
In this, Jerry Maguire is a product of its time. It skillfully zeroes in on the malaise many of us feel. But its solutions remain part of the problem. Without recourse to a transcendent set of moral values, well-intentioned people like Jerry and Dorothy will eventually be compromised and confused by the relativism that surrounds them. Their emotions may become enriched by the lifestyle changes the movie promotes, but the rest of their lives will still lack meaning.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.