It’s been 20 years since Jerry Maguire debuted in theaters. Does it seem that long ago to you? (Maybe it does when you look at how Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career has gone since then.)
Sure, there are things that make Cameron Crowe’s movie feel dated. Everyone’s using a flip phone. All of the prominent athlete cameos — notably Drew Bledsoe and Troy Aikman — are of that time. Actually, the first scene meant to put Tom Cruise’s sports agent in an authentic setting, presumably some kind of NFL trade show, screams 1996. (Cruise also played secret agent Ethan Hunt in the first Mission: Impossible film earlier that year. Two decades later, the secret agent thing is just about all he plays anymore.)
There’s former Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes and receiver Johnnie Morton. (Herman Moore also had a quick cameo. Was one of the producers a Lions fan?) Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie shakes hands with Maguire. Ki-Jana Carter was recently the No. 1 pick for the Cincinnati Bengals. Those are just a handful of the NFL cameos.
Later in the film, Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer makes an appearance, as does Katarina Witt. Brent Barry is one of Maguire’s clients who turns down a kid’s request for an autograph. Mel Kiper says hello to Maguire at the NFL Draft, while Mike Tirico (with hair!) does a radio interview. Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf and the late Frank Gifford are the Monday Night Football broadcast team. Roy Firestone is still a thing (though where Crowe got the idea that he always makes athletes cry on his show was always a question).
This is the risk of trying to make a film feel current. It can look dated very quickly. But it was surely important for Crowe to make his movie and lead character feel as if they could really exist in a world we are relatively familiar with. Jerry Maguire would have suffered if Cruise had been dealing with players and general managers in some fictional football league, if the production had to come up with phony logos and uniforms like Oliver Stone did for Any Given Sunday (which made that film difficult to take seriously). But the world needs to feel real, so that it doesn’t matter if the sports side of the story comes off as authentic.
Crowe’s script doesn’t provide any sort of behind-the-scenes access or insight that even a casual fan might not have been familiar with. There’s no “Oh, so that’s how it works!” moment, even with a little bit of Hollywood dramatic license. (Famed agent Leigh Steinberg was a consultant on the film, in addition to scoring a cameo.) Maguire calls up the Arizona Cardinals general manager (played by the late Glenn Frey) to propose contract terms for his client, receiver Rod Tidwell (Gooding), and there’s more of a personal relationship there than might be expected between team executive and agent (Maguire introduced the GM to his wife). They bicker with each other over how much Tidwell deserves, and the negotiation progresses throughout the movie.
Even when Maguire represents the prospective No. 1 draft pick, quarterback Frank Cushman (Jerry O’ Connell), there’s no sense of Maguire working behind the scenes to play Denver and San Diego against each other for his client or what sort of contract he’s seeking for a franchise quarterback. We get what Maguire tells Cushman and his father (Beau Bridges) about a possible trade, then later learn that the elder Cushman has been going behind Maguire’s back to work with rival agent and former colleague Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr) because he has a better working relationship with the Broncos’ front office.
Yet there are some story points that still apply to sports 20 years later. One of Maguire’s clients, a hockey player, just suffered his fourth concussion, yet player and agent are thinking more about how to get him back on the ice to keep earning that money. Only when the player’s son calls him out for not thinking about his father’s health does Maguire realize that he’s looking at this entirely the wrong way. He becomes further disillusioned when another of his clients refuses to sign a card for a kid out of brand loyalty (and contract terms). Maguire also has to deal with a player involved with a underage woman and defends him to the media by reminding reporters what a great athlete he is.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Jerry Maguire feels like it’s about a real sports agent dealing with NFL teams. It’s a bigger story about a man who’s lost his purpose and become someone he no longer recognizes. Call it a mid-life crisis. Whatever the reason Maguire decided to get into this business — based on flashbacks to his mentor, it’s because he enjoys dealing with people and helping clients realize their potential — he lost sight of that. That’s something virtually anyone can relate to. Am I living the life I want to live? What am I contributing to the world or even the people I love? How many of us have made a joke about writing a mission statement to define ourselves since seeing this movie?
Jerry Maguire doesn’t feel like a 20-year-old film because it’s been a vital part of our culture for so very long. Hopefully, you don’t have many people in your life who are still yelling “Show me the money!” or making a “You had me at hello” joke very often these days. Crowe’s script has so many memorable lines in it. Maybe there are too many good lines, as if Crowe wrote a script full of catchphrases, rather than how people might actually talk to each other.
Maybe this movie endures because of those catchphrases that we remember so well 20 years later. Yet this movie still resonates because Crowe does capture how people talk to each other so well, how difficult it can be to find true happiness when life always manages to be difficult. Most everyone who’s seen Jerry Maguire remembers the climactic scene in which Jerry tries to win back Dorothy Boyd by telling her how much she means to him. (Having to do it in front of group of divorced women adds to the emotional peril.)
What you might not recall until you watch the movie again is the scene in which Dorothy breaks up with Jerry because she knows it’s not working and that he asked her to marry him out of obligation rather than love. Cruise and Renee Zellweger are fantastic here. Maguire has likely relied on his charm, personality and looks to succeed in his profession, but they can’t help him out in this situation.
When we initially meet Dorothy Boyd, she seems like a hopeless romantic who envies the seemingly perfect life that Maguire has. But she’s strong, raising a boy by herself and sacrificing many of the pleasures that a 26-year-old should be enjoying in order to be the best mother she can. And she won’t settle. Even if she’s raised a great kid (Jonathan Lipnicki) that Maguire loves more than her, she knows that a man who’s great with her son isn’t enough. She deserves more. Zellweger got plenty of attention for her apple cheeks and bee-stung lips, but she’s on equal footing as a character. She’s not just the love interest.
Besides, the real love interest for Maguire might be Rod Tidwell. If Dorothy pushes Jerry to become the best man he can be, Tidwell pushes him to become the best agent he can be, someone who really cares about his clients, gives them full attention, and treats them like people rather than commodities. Maybe it’s crazy that Gooding Jr. won the Best Supporting Oscar in 1997 over William H. Macy for Fargo or Edward Norton for Primal Fear. But in watching Jerry Maguire again, you can see what appealed to voters.
Gooding Jr. has the most memorable lines with “Show me the money!” and talking about “coin” (kwan), but he provides the movie with its energy. (Personally, my favorite scene has always been when he gets Maguire to yell “I love black people!” into his phone.) And though Tidwell comes off as a brash athlete who constantly feels disrespected, Gooding Jr. gives him a human side. He’s the one who sees that Jerry doesn’t really love Dorothy and needs to treat her like she deserves. He gets his agent to see how much a new contract means to his family, how that affirmation truly matters for someone who’s always been overlooked. Maybe he’s really the one who makes Jerry become a better man.
What’s most important is that Gooding Jr. has never been better than he is in this movie. Actually, that applies to everyone involved. Cruise has been in plenty of movies over the past 20 years, playing some great roles in films like Magnolia, Minority Report, Collateral, Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow and four more Mission: Impossible gigs. But has he ever been a better actor and embodied a character as believably as he did in Jerry Maguire? Crowe went on to make what many consider his masterpiece next. I agree that Almost Famous is his best movie. But even if that was an autobiographical story, could he have gotten there, taking on a big world full of fully realized characters, without making Jerry Maguire first?
This movie has a strong legacy 20 years later. Filmmakers are referencing it to this day because many of the personalities Crowe created were so memorable. Many people will likely remember Jerry Maguire for its many great lines, but it deserves better than that. If you haven’t watched it lately, reunite yourself with these characters and their story. You might even be surprised at how much you enjoy it all over again.