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Game Film, No. 6: Jerry Maguire

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number six: a film genetically engineered to appeal to men and women equally.

Jerry Maguire the film is as slick and polished as its lead character. It knows what it’s doing, and doesn’t hesitate, moving smoothly and confidently toward its destination. It draws you in and entertains you from beginning to end. It also raises some questions:

  • Can a rom-com be a football movie, or vice-versa? (There will be a vote.)
  • Am I an idiot for putting two Tom Cruise football movies in the top 10? (There will not be a vote.)
  • Where does Rod Tidwell rank on the list of best sports movie characters ever? (It depends on who you ask, but he’s always on the list, sometimes at the top.)

Speaking of lists, AFI ranked this as the 10th best sports movie (and top football movie) of all time. It’s easy to see why. While it’s obviously not atop this list, I think it has the best screenplay. Cameron Crowe pulls that off while serving two disparate masters — “football movie” and “romantic comedy”.

With great writing, outstanding performances, and excellent direction, why isn’t this ranked higher? Because while most football movies have a romantic subplot, one could argue this makes football the subplot to the rom-com. There’s nothing wrong with that — it has enough football to qualify — but I can’t ignore it.

Without giving too much away, the top five are all unquestionably football movies. Each plot revolves around the game. That cannot be said about Jerry Maguire, and that’s the reason it’s outside the top five looking in.

Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:

MVP

Tom Cruise is the star of the movie, but Renee Zellwegger is its heart, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is its soul. This makes for one of the tougher choices on the list. But while Cruise and Zellweger were both excellent, I’m betting more people left the theater talking about -- and quoting -- Gooding than everyone else combined. Which is ironic, since, in his big break, Boyz n’ the Hood, Gooding was the lead, but more people left the theater talking about Ice Cube or Laurence Fishburne.

It’s not often someone steals a movie from Cruise, but that’s how electric Gooding is as Rod Tidwell -- the best football player character ever in my opinion. Part of that is the writing mentioned above. Tidwell was a unique creation before he was ever cast, gifted with some of the most quotable lines in sports movie history. However, read those lines on the page, and they don’t necessarily pop. Its Gooding’s performance which gave them pop culture immortality. “Show me the money” is a great line, but I doubt AFI would list it as the 25th greatest ever said on screen without Gooding’s inspired delivery.

Don’t agree? Check out the life, love, and energy he brings to his Oscar acceptance speech:

That’s a 10-catch, 147-yard, two TD performance of a speech.

Gooding plays the diva receiver with a chip on his shoulder to perfection, so when that chip finally comes off, it’s magical. And it pays off the real romance in the movie: Jerry and Rod.

It’s an indelible performance etched into film lore. They don’t generally give out Oscars to sports movies or episodes of “A Football Life” to fictional players. (WARNING: Clip is aggressively unfunny)

Key role players

As transcendent as Gooding’s performance is, it’s still an upset to find Cruise down here. He’s overqualified for this category. After all, it’s Cruise who carries the movie as the titular agent. He’s the one in just about every scene. It’s his voiceover introducing the world. He’s one we follow through joyful celebration and painful failure. He’s the one who changes the most over the course of the film.

Love him or hate him, you have to give Cruise credit for a terrific performance. First off, he makes an agent likable, which is not easy. Precious few come off as relatable, yet Cruise imbues the character with humanity and frailty he often can’t pull off for his real-life self. He’s slicked back and smooth, handsome and well-dressed, oily and disingenuous at the start of the film, yet he not only gets us to feel Jerry’s pain but to root for him.

A big part of that is his breakthrough (”not breakdown”) early in the movie -- a dark night of the soul which fills him with the self-doubt, anxiety, and yearning so many of us feel in our own lives. This humanizes Jerry, and Cruise nails it. After that, and his mission statement (now available to read) we’re on board with him and eager to follow his journey.

As good as Cruise is, it’s hard to pair him with a female lead. You can list the believable romantic interests he’s had on one hand. Also, most came in the 80’s before we knew so much about Cruise’s weirdness; it became hard to imagine him in a romantic relationship. Zellweger may well go down as the last genuinely believable romantic lead Cruise ever had. She has to be someone you believe Cruise could love and could love him back, while also being someone the audience finds lovable. That’s much ground to cover, but Zellweger pulls it off with ease. As Dorothy Boyd, she mixes just enough sweetness with the toughness to buy her not only winning Jerry over but keeping him on track and saving him from himself. It’s no surprise the performance landed her on the A-list. There’s a reason this is a legendary film moment, and it’s impossible without Zellweger’s performance.

  • Zellweger is buoyed by Bonnie Hunt, who brings both gravity and comedy to her role as Dorothy’s sister Laurel, grounding the story and firing off quips. The heart and the humor is on display in this scene (as well as a master class in non-verbal reaction at the end):
  • Regina King is great (as always) as Marcee Tidwell, Rod’s passionate wife. She’s the heart behind his storyline, pushing him to greater success and bringing into sharp focus who Rod is fighting for when he screams about that money he’s he wants to be shown. (Clip is just slightly NSFW)

The opponents

  • Jay Mohr should be the rookie of the year for his portrayal of rival agent Bob Sugar, but I need him more in this category. He’s so great as a slimy, smarmy agent, he played another on TV three years later. He’s one of the those guys you just want to punch in the face, which is what the role calls for, making him one of the better douchey rivals in recent movie history (I’m a Sack Lodge guy myself). Mohr personifies the dark forces (greed, disloyalty, disingenuity) Jerry must battle in his attempt to be a good man and also a successful agent.
  • Sugar later steals QB Frank Cushman, the presumptive #1 pick, away from Jerry on the eve of the draft by winning over his dad, Matt Cushman, played by Beau Bridges. The scene Jerry finds out is gutting, and Bridges plays it expertly. Not as a mustache-twirling villain, just a guy looking out for number one. Until he punctuates it with some vague racism.
  • Crowe enlists Glenn Frye as Dennis Wilburn, the Cardinals GM, who doesn’t want to show Tidwell the money despite his gaudy stats from the previous season: 110 catches, 1550 yards. Sure, the movie offsets that by making a point that Tidwell is on the smaller side, but I don’t get it. Great numbers from a local guy out of ASU. Seems like a guy you’d want to re-sign. Instead, Wilburn calls him a “shrimp” with an “attitude problem.” Sounds like an Odell/Gettleman situation. Also, I couldn’t help feeling like an opportunity was missed by not having Frye threaten to trade him to the Eagles.

Rookie of the year

As mentioned, it could’ve been Mohr in only his second big screen role. It could’ve been Zellweger in her breakout role, but she’d already been in eight movies, though all bit parts. With them off the board, there’s only one viable answer...

Jonathan Lipnicky may now be a cliche — the no-longer-cute kid actor all grown up — but there’s a reason why his performance as Ray Boyd was so beloved at the time.

Key moment

The “Show Me The Money” line — originally uttered by former 49er Tim McDonald (who’s not thrilled about it) — would be entertaining in any context. Because it also serves as the reason Jerry loses all his other clients, and therefore is the catalyst for the rest of Jerry’s career (fewer clients, less money, more personal attention, just like his mission statement suggested), and the movie (he and Rod, tied at the hip), it reaches classic territory.

The highlights

As you might imagine from Gooding’s MVP standing, the best moments in the movie are Tidwell-heavy:

  • ”The Kwan” speech

Which leads into...

  • The “Help me help you” speech:
  • And after everything he and Jerry went through, Tidwell’s TD celebration feels earned and climactic:
  • One of the hardest parts of screenwriting is the art of the set up and payoff, which is why it’s one of the most satisfying experiences for a viewer. Crowe pulls this off time and again. Remember, he set up “you complete me” at the very beginning of the movie, which is why its payoff is beloved. The “Ambassador of Kwan” scene at the end of the film manages to pull this off several times by tying together multiple set-ups into one orgiastic payoff. It wraps up the entire Tidwell contract storyline, calls back the crying on “Up Close with Roy Firestone” gag set up earlier, and of course, ties a bow on the entire concept of Kwan. It makes for a great scene, packed with emotion.

The lowlight

Did they really have to add in that Jerry introduced Milburn to his wife and they’ve shared Christmases together? That seemed over the top. The fact he denigrates his star WR, won’t offer him a fair contract, and stands Jerry up at a meeting to discuss the deal is enough to paint him as a heel, I don’t think we needed that personal touch to show how ungrateful he was. It’s a small nitpick, a testament to how well-made the movie is.

Football scenes

There’s not a whole lot of football in the movie, and what’s there are all passes to Tidwell, but give them credit, it’s believable as hell. The Monday Night Football sequence feels especially real -- thanks to the movie footage being intercut with clips from an actual Dallas vs. Arizona MNF game, and the contemporary announcers, Al Michaels, Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf, taking part.

NFL Cameos

Besides the announcers, and the aforementioned McDonald and Steinberg, a ton of NFL players and coaches make appearances: Drew Bledsoe, Ki-Jana Carter, Warren Moon, Kerry Collins, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Lynn Swann, Dave Krieg, Deion Sanders, Johnny Morton, Barry Switzer, Wayne Fontes and others I’m sure I missed. There’s also ESPN talent at the draft, including Mel Kiper and Mike Tirico.

Realism

Keeping things real was key for Crowe, in this movie and throughout his career. Remember, this is a guy who went undercover as a high school student to research the modern teenager, resulting in him penning the novel and screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He wrote and directed Almost Famous, based on his personal experience traveling with Led Zeppelin. And for this movie he followed around Leigh Steinberg to get an accurate picture of a sports agent’s life and work. The results led former Packers GM Andrew Brandt to say it “accurately portrayed the cutthroat nature of the agent business.”

Best line

Rod Tidwell: “Some dudes might have the coin, but they’ll never have the ‘Kwan’.”

Up next

The most recent movie on the list. Hint: It’s based on a true story and stars an Oscar winner.

Poll

Jerry Maguire is...

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    a rom-com.
    (30 votes)
  • 1%
    a football movie.
    (2 votes)
  • 59%
    a rom-com and a football movie.
    (78 votes)
  • 16%
    not worth discussing.
    (22 votes)
132 votes total Vote Now

Previous posts:
Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves
No. 8: Any Given Sunday
No. 7: Rudy