Jerry Maguire – Dallas Morning News

Crowe Magnum

It’s tough to track a person’s individual growth, but an artist leaves an indelible, evolving trail of creative peaks and valleys for our perusal. And the path is clearer than most in the case of Cameron Crowe, the writer/director whose latest film, Jerry Maguire, opened Friday.

A wunderkind rock journalist for Rolling Stone at age 16, Mr. Crowe has kept up his youthful image by tracking aimless youth on film. He penned the screenplay to 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High in his early 20s and tackled post-high-school angst in his directorial debut, Say Anything. . . , seven years later. He finally graduated to the 20-something set once he hit his mid-30s, tapping the Generation X scene for 1992’s Singles.

But with Jerry Maguire, the story of a sports agent’s fall and rocky rise to redemption, Mr. Crowe’s subject matter seems to have caught up with his age: At 39, he’s infused his hip sensibilities into a movie about adults, for adults.

And the result is his best film yet. Instead of trying to capture a generation, Jerry Maguire takes the time to flesh out its characters and develop them on their own terms. It’s a movie about people rather than cultural perceptions of people, and its treatment of Mr. Crowe’s favorite themes – the foibles of modern romance, the search for redemption and meaningful human contact in an increasingly large, cold world – attains a sense of honesty and narrative drive unmatched in his earlier work. Fast Times is a largely entertaining look at teen hormones and naiveté. Its colorful, actor-friendly script also helped launch the careers of several current stars, including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold and Forrest Whitaker.

Yet beneath the surface of Fast Times’ blunt charm lies an assortment of well-defined adolescent caricatures, exaggerated types dealing with real issues. Mr. Penn makes for a great surf stoner, but his role stops at the point of comic relief. Similarly, the betrayal/ redemption subplot, involving two friends and the girl they both pursue (Ms. Leigh), is a noble stab at genuine conflict that never quite comes across. Fast Times is certainly one of the best teen romp films ever made, but ultimately it’s just a romp.

To his credit, Mr. Crowe narrowed his scope and struck a quirky note with his return to high school and its aftermath, Say Anything. The character-driven drama with a pointed sense of humor intimately explores the people within a generation without making them representatives of that generation. Ione Skye’s sheltered smart girl and John Cusack’s charming drifter feel like lost and moorless post-high schoolers, but not before they feel like real people. This time, Mr. Crowe steps back from prescribed social views and shows a hint of Jerry Maguire’s focus and flare.

But focus is not a strong suit of Singles, Mr. Crowe’s sweet but meandering peek into a hip, Melrose Place-ish apartment complex in Seattle. Though not as condescending as other Gen-X exposes (Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites remains the most shameless), Singles still feels like the product of an outsider looking in.

Still, Singles marks a critical point in Mr. Crowe’s ascendance as a student of contemporary habits. The idea that dating ain’t much fun is hardly new, but it still works on film as long as you can relate to the searchers. When Singles works – namely when Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick share the screen as an earnestly confused young couple – you feel like you’re listening in on a cafe encounter. When it doesn’t – Matt Dillon’s wannabe grunge rock star is essentially a more sophisticated update of Mr. Penn’s Fast Times character – it’s clear that Mr. Crowe has fallen prey to simplifying a “lost generation.”

Yet it would also be simplistic to describe the success of Jerry Maguire as a “stick to your own age group” lesson. Yes, it’s notable that Mr. Crowe has focused on a subject other than post-high school, post-college crisis. But this is more a story of artistic maturity than acting your age, a convergence of elements that appeared in bits and pieces of his earlier work.

Jerry Maguire works as a character study, the kind hinted at in Say Anything but now developed with a sense of literary depth. Tom Cruise’s Jerry is a flesh-and-blood character forced to change by his own evolving instincts. It works as a romance and a milieu film where Singles sputtered: Jerry’s marriages and struggles with intimacy and his experience with the off-the-field world of pro sports are crafted with a sure hand. Perhaps most important, it works as finely honed escapism, written with a sense of zing that makes Fast Times look sophomoric in comparison.

Cameron Crowe’s growth as an artist and his movement toward more mature subject matter – and subjects – have followed a similar path. The characters get a little older, a little wiser, as the craft gets stronger and stronger.

Just look at the protagonists in Mr. Crowe’s three films as director, each in search of personal contact and some form of redemption. Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler (Mr. Cusack) is a lost post-adolescent who finds companionship and a sense of worth in another person. Things get a bit more complicated in Singles; Mr. Scott’s nice-guy bachelor faces added responsibility and professional frustration to go with his romantic yearnings.

By the time Jerry Maguire rolls around, we’re looking at a full-fledged identity crisis, fueled by poor life choices and the urge to ignore the walls closing in. Redemption is no longer a preference; it’s a necessity.

These are complexities that come with age and experience – of both the characters and their creator.

Courtesy of the Dallas Morning News – Chris Vognar – December 14, 1996