Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe)

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)

1996 has been a truly rotten year for studio films, but Hollywood finally came through in December; together with the little-seen and very-little-appreciated The Frighteners, which made a brief pit stop in theaters back in July, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Jerry Maguire are the best the big boys had to offer us this annum, severely flawed though they may be. The former is clearly an "event" picture, dominated by a larger-than-life public figure and concerned with important First Amendment issues; the latter, by contrast, is "big" only because a big star, Tom Cruise, agreed to play the title role. In every other respect, it's as intimate and personable as Cameron Crowe's previous Say Anything... -- and, in spite of a shaky ending and one unnecessary obstacle in the path of True Love, it's also equally charming and kindhearted and hilarious. The story, as you probably know, involves a sports agent (Cruise) who suddenly realizes that he's profiting from human misery and decides to make a change; Woody Allen would have had this character renounce his profession to work with Mother Teresa (see his Alice...better still, don't), but Crowe is refreshingly realistic: Jerry, like most of us, just wants to be a slightly better person, to sleep just a little easier at night. Cruise's range is extremely limited, but this role suits him perfectly; it looks at first as if it'll be yet another variation on his typical cocky-guy-gets-humbled-and-learns-to-be-a-man shtick, but Crowe does something mildly subversive: he begins Jerry Maguire where the usual Cruise picture ends, with that tentative step forward. The bulk of the picture concerns the character's struggle to maintain his newfound integrity in the face of considerable adversity. I have no idea whether Crowe had Cruise in mind when he was writing the script, but as filmed it plays almost as a testy reproach to Tom's entire oeuvre, suggesting (correctly) that what's most interesting is what happens after we learn an important lesson -- how (or whether) we apply that knowledge to our daily lives. That's half the movie; the other half is the romance, which works beautifully -- largely because newcomer Renée Zellweger, as Jerry's paramour, is so effortlessly incandescent. I can't remember the last time I was so taken with an actress: Marry me, Renée. The rest of the cast -- which includes Bonnie Hunt, Cuba Gooding Jr., and the too-cute-to-live Jonathan Lipnicki -- is almost as fine; the only weak link -- the "unnecessary obstacle" mentioned above -- is Jerry's fiancée, played by Kelly Preston in a manner that distracted me from the narrative by prompting me to wonder about the sociological factors behind the collective decision to make every "wrong guy" in the movies an effeminate wimp (the Bill Pullman role, formerly the Ralph Bellamy role) and every "wrong gal" a pushy, career-minded opportunist. But let that pass, lest we be here all night. The film's conclusion, too, is a bit on the sappy side, with another realization that comes out of nowhere -- we don't get to see the aftermath of that one, but I suppose they had to end the damn movie sometime. A slightly flawed gem; this year, especially, I wouldn't think of taking it back. (Stupid Analogy #73 in a series of 500.)