Love him or hate him, there’s really never been a bad time to be Tom Cruise. But being Tom Cruise 20 years ago was an unusually good time to be Tom Cruise. It was the peak of his golden Nicole Kidman years, his flirtation with Scientology was safely kept out of the public eye, and he had just smashed the box office with the first Mission: Impossible movie. But look just one place down from Mission: Impossible on a list of the highest-grossing films of 1996, and you’ll find another Tom Cruise triumph — the Cameron Crowe romantic comedy Jerry Maguire, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
Looking at Jerry Maguire in the context of what is released by studios now, it seems impossible that the movie could have been a $273 million hit. The highest-grossing films of this year have been Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootopia, and The Jungle Book. All our hits are family films, most are franchises, and the boundary between live action and animation is ever shrinking. Meanwhile, Jerry Maguire is an R-rated drama that isn’t based on a true story. There was no best-selling book to attach to its original script, there are no superpowers, no big twists, no hook. Its story centers around a down-on-his-luck sports agent — hardly a friendly pitch to sales overseas. Yet on top of the movie’s massive global intake at the box office, Jerry Maguire was nominated for Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, which Cuba Gooding Jr. won for his role as Jerry’s client, Rod Tidwell. The film inspired its own segment on VH1’s I Love the ’90s, and lines like “show me the money” and “you had me at hello” have been repeated, reclaimed, and reimagined so many times that the movie has folded back into the everyday fabric of our culture, so much so that its references no longer register as references. Jerry Maguire is then a bit of an oddity — it’s equally impossible to imagine the movie being made in the world today as it is to imagine today’s world without it.
Crowe, Jerry Maguire’s writer and director (and heart and soul), released Roadies this year, a television series about band stagehands that was somehow overshadowed in the music-television game by such events as The Get Down or even nonevents like Vinyl. Meanwhile, Crowe’s last foray into romantic-comedy filmmaking, Aloha, is probably best remembered for the controversy of casting Emma Stone as someone who could conceivably be one-quarter Polynesian. But if Crowe’s heart-first earnestness has struggled to find a foothold in a cultural sphere less susceptible to the charms of optimism, in 1996 he put his finger exactly on the pulse of the American id and stroked. Jerry Maguire is a film about finance, family, failure, and football — a parable for the survivors of American corporate culture.
Jerry Maguire begins his story as a hotshot, the biggest star in sports agency. He’s the guy who closes the deals, who sweet-talks the managers, who gets the signature on the dotted line of $10 million checks. His life is built on maintaining the easy superficiality of relationships that keeps money flowing, but in a moment of almost religious revelation, Jerry decides his company would be better off if everyone cared more and settled for less. In the language of corporate America, this is what is known as having a nervous breakdown.
Jerry is fired, abandoned by all the people he claimed to care about and all the people who claimed to care about him, and left with only one client and one co-worker. Once the hard nature of reality locks him out of the fleeting paradise of his own quasi-spiritual revival, Jerry is still the same asshole with intimacy issues he was before, but now he has less money, less security, less prestige, no girlfriend, and just one loudmouthed client no one wants to work with because the guy’s too much trouble for what he earns. In his rock-bottom self-pity, Jerry is blind to the way his choices impact the lives of the people who remain around him, and no one is more impacted than Renée Zellweger’s Dorothy, the single mom who walked out on a stable job because she believed in the vision of the world Jerry presented in his memo.
If Jerry Maguire were only about Jerry, maybe watching it now would feel like experiencing the self-indulgence of a self-pitying dude. But there’s a reason Jerry Maguire works: If his initial epiphany stems from the desire to build a community, the movie around him realizes that vision before Jerry is able to embody it himself. Dorothy’s world is important to Jerry Maguire as a film long before her needs become important to Jerry Maguire as a character, and the time we spend watching the relationship between Rod and his wife, Marcee (Regina King), reveals their lives as another world of happiness and heartbreak. Jerry might see the people in his life as tools for his own satisfaction, but the film never follows him into his own myopia, and the result is disarming even from a 20-year distance.
Like many of Crowe’s movies, Jerry Maguire is an only-at-the-movies fantasy with its game-changing touchdowns and its eleventh-hour declarations, but what has made the fairy tale linger is that Crowe acknowledges the real aches that gnaw at us as we try to make our way through the world. The desire for intimacy, to work for a cause you care about alongside people who care about you, for a business culture that supports independence and creativity, for a partner who supports you out of more than obligation — these aren’t needs that have been quelled over time. If anything, when it comes to tending to our wounds, the only difference between then and now is that movies like Jerry Maguire have to start their empowerment crusades from the art houses, not the multiplex.