Jerry Maguire is a great example of how irrelevant genre can be sometimes. Is Jerry Maguire a Tom Cruise vehicle? Is it a romance film? Is it a sports film? Who cares. It’s great, is what it is.

Tom Cruise plays the titular character, Jerry Maguire, a sports agent who, late one night, in a hotel, grows a conscience for the first time. He writes a manifesto of values that he wants to stand for, – for creating more personal relationships with the clients, for instance – and is promptly fired by his agency. In rapid-fire sequence he calls every one of his clients and is shot down by each one, told that they are staying with the agency, and his rival Bob Sugar; at the last moment, he manages to hang on to one client: erratic Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr., in his best, and most iconic, role – there’s a real feeling of the kind of intensity that pro athletes actually have), who demands, in one of Jerry Maguire‘s many iconic moments, that Jerry live by the mantra of “SHOW ME THE MONEY!”.

Also along for the ride is Renee Zellwegger (her first major role) as single mother Dorothy Boyd, an employee at the sports agency who is so moved by Maguire’s vision of reform that she irrationally joins him. Although it’s a big risk – she has a young son, Ray (the adorably bespectacled Jonathan Lipnicki), and lives with her sister – she sees in Jerry not the man he is, but the man he could be. Unsurprisingly, she falls in love with him; though he falls in love with her too, he struggles to express this sentiment.

Though Jerry Maguire is a film about many things, it’s ultimately, at it’s core, a film about this fundamental transformation: The transformation of Jerry Maguire from self-centered cynic to loving family man and caring friend, is the core of this film, and it simply wouldn’t work without the great gifts of Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise is an exceptional physical actor, capable of great stuntwork, of seeming like a force of nature; as a result, he’s not always asked to show a lot of dramatic range. Here, in Jerry Maguire, is one of the few exceptions.

In Jerry Maguire, we see so many different facets of Cruise. He’s a hyper-competent wheeler-and-dealer; he’s a slick lady’s man who knows how to manipulate women around him; he’s a man who has a moral compass that he hasn’t quite figured out how to use yet; he’s a man of extreme desperation, willing to go to any length to get what he wants; he’s a man of great loyalty and compassion and love, who doesn’t know how to express his feelings and how to relate to people around him. And by the end of the movie, Cruise shows us the man who has been unearthed, a loving family man, who balances his work with his relationships, who has achieved the inner peace he’s been seeking. The sheer versatility that Cruise is asked to show in this role is a stark reminder of his abilities as a performer.

Of course, the performers around him help to facilitate this transformation in a multitude of ways. At the start of the film, Jerry isn’t so different from fellow agent Bob Sugar; and yet, as played by Jay Mohr, by the end of the film, Sugar is a foil, a completely comical villain; this speaks both to the performance by Mohr as well as the transformation that Jerry is able to achieve over the course of the film. Rod Tidwell isn’t just Jerry’s only client, a constant source of comedy in the film; he’s also the son of a single mother, with the kind of insight that Jerry needs to seek out in order to understand how to make his relationship with Dorothy work. And, the growth that Jerry shows in learning how to be a better man, is paralled in the growth that Rod shows, in becoming a more personable player, and in valuing and treasuring his relationship with Jerry over the sheer financials of it all.

The women of this film are surprisingly well-served, not something you always see. Zellwegger here gets some of the choicest moments of the film. It’s a great performance; there’s a moment when she comes out all dolled up, just excited for some time spent with another adult; another moment when she confesses her love to Jerry to her sister, only to be embarrassed to realize that Jerry’s been listening; Zellwegger delivers a standout performance through it all.

Similarly, Regina King appears here as Marcee Tidwell, Rod’s loving wife, who has great backbone, who pushes Rod to succeed, who pushes Jerry to do what’s best for Rod, and who seems to be the backbone of the Tidwell family. It’s the kind of role that a lesser actor would have likely been able to perform, but in the hands of King is elevated to something more memorable and special.

Bonnie Hunt also appears here as Dorothy’s sister, Laurel, the tut-tutting, disapproving older sister who cautions Dorothy against entering into a relationship with a man like Jerry. Again, in the hands of a lesser actor, this might have been a nothing character, but Bonnie Hunt turns this into an opportunity for something more.

The women of Jerry Maguire are all far more emotionally intelligent than the men, recognizing the flaws in the men that they all cannot see in themselves until they’re able to grow. It’s not often that you see a film that has such a subtle, feminist underpinning, and yet here we are. Just another reason why Jerry Maguire is great.

Of course, this is a Cameron Crowe movie, so it goes without saying: There’s some great music here. When Crowe succumbs to his lesser instincts, his musical choices tend to be on-the-nose and obvious; but here the needle drops all seem to be effective.

There’s not enough good things to say about this film. It works on every level – it’s really a masterwork. Cameron Crowe struck gold here.

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