Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Scott musings and reconsiderations of mid-nineties nostalgia

A.O. Scott, definitely one of the more thoughtful and coherent reviewers around today, has written a surprisingly philosophical piece in today's NY Times about the way certain films that deal with the corporate sector (Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire, Chris Weitz's Good Company and Jason Reitman's Oscar-hopeful Up in the Air) reflect shifts in the American psyche while still upholding a common philosophical thread, namely a kind of Emersonian self-perfection. In fact, the piece reminded me of the writings of the American philosopher Stanley Cavell who has attempted to show a link between major philosophical figures such as Emerson, Wittgenstein and Kant and repeated themes and tropes in American genre films.

I can't really comment on Scott's argument since I haven't seen either Good Company or Up in the Air but it did make me reflect on Jerry Maguire, a film I've seen quite a few times. It's kind of the cinematic equivalent of Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah or Nirvana's Smell's Like Teen Spirit. There's no way to hear those songs without getting slightly nauseous because they were overhyped and overplayed to such an extent that the music itself got lost in the pop culture phenomenon. Jerry Maguire, similarly, will always be loathed as the film with the freaky Cuba Gooding Jr. performance (insert reference to the revealing of monetary funds here), cliché lines ("You had me at..." hell, I can't say it) and a just-about-to-go-off-the-deep-end Tom Cruise. Which is a shame, really, since it's a pretty good film, a surprisingly honest one that deals with difficult issues in an adult and complicated way. Most American films end with the guy and girl falling in love and getting married but this one wisely presents this at the end of the first act. It's really what happens after the "I do" that is worth filming and writing about and Crowe does a great job at showing us people who have a hard time developing a real relationship after that initial spark of passion has (inevitably) faded away.

I have to say though, that Scott's musings on the film have made me want to see it again, perhaps with a more critical eye. He touches on certain essential elements in the films theme and philosophy. Here's a revealing passage from his article:

A representative man. Jerry is a full-blooded avatar of the Protestant-Emersonian tradition that continues to flourish, often unrecognized, in American civic culture, and in our popular art as well. He believes, above all — and the movie all but insists — that it is possible for apparently discrepant values and identities to be perfectly congruent. Decency, wealth, love, fame: these are not contradictory but rather mutually reinforcing expressions of that secular grace known as happiness. We are innately entitled to pursue it, and a broad highway and a good car will only speed the capture.

If Jerry’s ambition seems for a while to undermine his ability to sustain his connections with his wife and best friend, that is not because of any inherently destabilizing imbalance between love and work. It is because he has not yet learned to harmonize those things.

As much as I like the film and applaud it on many levels, I've never been entirely cool with the general mood and ambiance of the thing. Even though Jerry has a kind of epiphany about the vacuousness of his life and profession his spiritual enlightenment seems pretty superficial. It's great and all that he ditches his frightening (but exceedingly beautiful) girlfriend for something more real with the Renée Zellweger character but I'm not sure to what extent he's really a changed person at the end of the film. Which seems, in hindsight, like a pretty major flaw since the whole arch of the script seems to be pushing towards a kind of spiritual breakthrough. In fact, the scene with Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character making that touchdown and then hugging Jerry because of his newfound humility/inner joy is a perfect representation of how much emotion and heart Crowe is able to squeeze out of minor and ridiculous character development (I am loathe to admit but that scene kills me, every time). The major flaw with the film is that these "epiphanies" aren't earned. All of us know that it takes a lot of suffering and a lot of pain to achieve even an inkling of satori, i.e. that state where you see things in a new perspective and achieve some sort of humility and grace that enables you to better yourself in fundamental ways.

I think that after reading Scott's article I've realized what has always bothered me about Jerry Maguire, namely this strange Protestant ideal of spiritual and material grace being two sides of the same coin. Any real epiphany must be bought with blood, sweat and tears and when reached it should be a breakthrough of the sorts where one can leave father and mother, wife and children (and career and sports car) for this new found reality one has entered into. Quentin Tarantino caught the essence of true satori in much deeper and more profound ways in the final act of Pulp Fiction than Crowe did in Jerry Maguire. Jules Wingfield (Sam Jackson), who is going to "walk the earth... like Kain in Kung Fu" is, for me, a healthy antidote to the Joel Osteen esque spirituality of Jerry Maguire. Now if only Tarantino had started the damn film where it ended.

1 comment:

r. charles said...

I don't think this ever explicitly occurred to me, but I have always had some hesitation in fully embracing Jerry Maguire, and I think this is why. If the personal epiphany/success story aspect of the film had followed the same less-conventional/more complex route of the love story, it may have been much more profound.

I have seen Good Company, but I don't remember it well. However, as I recall, the main character embraces a more radical about-face come movie's end than seen in Jerry Maquire. The hitch is that the story really focuses on two characters, and one of them makes more of a change than the other, which may be where the criticism you're referring to comes in. But I remember it has exploring more of a generation gap than commenting on specific ideals. It's not a great film--certainly not as memorable as JM--but it's not awful, and you might appreciate it as a service to your interest in this topic.