In the prologue to Ridicule, a failed courtier goes to visit the older man whose derisive quip destroyed the younger one’s reputation at court. The aged wit is now too infirm to do or even say anything when his enemy first taunts him and then proceeds to urinate on him. As if to demonstrate the distance between 18th-century Versailles and EuroDisney Paris, director Patrice Leconte even includes a close-up of the younger man’s penis.
Distributed in the U.S. by Miramax Zoe, a Disney subsidiary, Ridicule is hardly as perverse as this introduction portends. Indeed, the prelude is as shocking as the film gets. Despite the opulently decadent setting—Versailles just six years before Robespierre put the guillotine on retainer—Remi Waterhouse’s script strives toward a bourgeois moral. Such previous Leconte films as Monsieur Hire and The Hairdresser’s Husband owed their ambience principally to the director’s quaint brand of misogyny, but at least it was distinctive. Here the sexual politics are as standard-issue as the powdered wigs.
The viewer’s guide to Versailles’ iniquity is Gregoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), an idealistic (and impoverished) aristocrat from southwestern France. To benefit the local peasants, he wants to drain the swamps and create fish ponds in his jurisdiction, thus abating disease and furthering aquaculture. Ponceludon quickly learns that the court has little interest in funding such capital-improvement projects. His only hope is to establish himself as a wit, thus perhaps winning the ear of King Louis XVI.
Ponceludon soon wins two allies, the Countess of Blayac (Fanny Ardant) and the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort, who has appeared in five previous Leconte films, including The Hairdresser’s Husband). The marquis provides Ponceludon with both his counsel and his home, and introduces him to his daughter Mathilde (Judith Godreche), a scientifically minded beauty who has decided to wed an elderly man to assure her financial future. The countess is closer to the king, but is an unreliable benefactor: She sleeps with both Ponceludon and his venomously witty enemy, the arrogant Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), and turns on her protege after she discovers that he’s fallen in love with Mathilde.
This scenario allows for a wide-ranging investigation of 18th-century courtly foibles, from the office whose task is to certify that courtiers’ aristocratic lineage stretches back four centuries to the marriage contract between Mathilde and her fiancee (he’s guaranteed two nights a month in her bed; she’s assured that she will soon be a wealthy widow). Meanwhile, Ponceludon rises and falls and rises again in a series of battles, most of them verbal but one of them involving pistols.
Despite the production’s attention to period detail, Ridicule is largely untainted by the sensibility of pre-revolutionary Versailles. The film’s two heroes, in fact, could hardly be more modern: Ponceludon and Mathilde are scientific in their interests and democratic in their sympathies, with no more tolerance for the ruling bureaucrats of their era than Rambo had for those of his. And lest anyone doubt that Ponceludon should prefer Mathilde to the countess, the younger woman is spared the heavy powder and heavier wigs worn by the other characters. With her natural-look locks and her Wonderbra cleavage, she’s a 1990s sort of feminine ideal.
No wonder Ridicule suggests an American high-school romantic comedy—and not one so savvy as Clueless. Ponceludon is the 18th-century French equivalent of the well-meaning regular guy who’s temporarily distracted by the rich, voluptuous cheerleader, but who realizes in the climactic scene that he really belongs with the cute nice girl who’s interested in things beyond her own status. The film’s moment of truth, in which Ponceludon tells off the countess and her circle as Mathilde materializes tellingly at his side, would play pretty much the same at a high-school prom as it does at the film’s Versailles ball. Rather than reveal the court of Louis XVI as a festering den of absurd privilege, Ridicule reduces it to a self-impressed clique. Watching the film, you’ll wonder why France bothered with a bloody revolution when all that was really required was a chat with a competent guidance counselor.
Sports picture, romantic comedy, and self-actualization parable rolled into one, Jerry Maguire could hardly be more calculating. Yet the film, like writer/director Cameron Crowe’s previous cinematic efforts, has a sweetness and spirit that very nearly overshadow its crossover ambitions. The movie is inarguably manipulative, but it’s also unexpectedly charming.
Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) is a hard-charging sports agent with a large L.A. agency who one night has a dangerous epiphany: He decides the firm has gotten too big, too greedy, and too impersonal, and writes a “mission statement” to that effect. His fellow agents cynically cheer him, knowing he’s doomed. A week later, he’s fired.
Leaving the office, Jerry invites his co-workers to join him, but only one does: Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), a young accountant who is also the widowed mother of an impossibly precocious 6-year-old, Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki). Jerry is no more persuasive in retaining his clients; only wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) decides to risk it, and that’s because he thinks he’s been shortchanged by the agency in the past. He wants a fat new contract and a better class of endorsement deals.
As Jerry loses his status—a process telegraphed too obviously by his wardrobe—he begins to chafe at his relationship with his sexy, ambitious, unempathetic fiancee (Kelly Preston). The long-smitten Dorothy is only too happy to catch Jerry on the rebound, and the two are married before the outgoing but fundamentally uptight agent is sure what happened. After the wedding, he has to learn how to become emotionally intimate with his wife. The agent’s career challenge is to remake Rod as a star who can command a star’s salary, but the film’s central action is Jerry’s struggle to acknowledge and express his love for Dorothy.
Professional sports and classic rock are Jerry Maguire’s two touchstones, and those who don’t share Crowe’s enthusiasm for them may understandably doubt that the film will—to paraphrase the best-known line from Crowe’s Singles—rock their world. The movie actually includes a climactic touchdown catch, as well as a punk-never-happened soundtrack that includes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bad Company, the Who at their most rock operatic, and Paul McCartney’s innocuous “Singalong Junk.” Crowe flaunts his easy-listening inclinations in a car-radio scene where Jerry tunes out the Stones’ “Bitch” in favor of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” and includes cameos by such old Rolling Stone pals as Jann Wenner and Glenn Frey. (There’s also a small role for Eric Stoltz, who’s been in every Crowe project since his first script, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.)
Crowe’s screenplay turns on true romance between two attractive young people, a time-tested formula, but his pungent dialogue is more up-to-date than his musical taste. All the central characters except Dorothy, a paragon of girl-next-door warmth and sincerity, are suitably self-conscious; Jerry identifies himself as “a cautionary tale” and laments, after first kissing Dorothy, that “I feel like Clarence Thomas.” Crowe has also scripted a number of on-screen color commentators, from Rod’s exuberantly supportive wife Marcee (Regina King) to Dorothy’s “disapproving sister” Laurel (Bonnie Hunt), and a chorus of man-mistrusting divorced women who have their support sessions at Laurel and Dorothy’s house. (Naturally, Jerry has to deliver his big speech to Dorothy in front of this tough audience.)
With its canny ratios of sports:romance, male:female, and black:white, Jerry Maguire is a superb piece of marketing. Yet the film is actually as exuberant as the bantering alliance between Jerry and Rod, and as tender as the gawky romance between Jerry and Dorothy. Cruise tempers his trademark cockiness with vulnerability, and the supporting players endow their two-dimensional roles with humanity. When Jerry counsels Rod that he doesn’t play with enough “heart,” it’s a sports (and sports-movie) cliche. Jerry Maguire, though, actually seems to believe in heart, and that gives it a significant emotional edge over most Hollywood hybrids.