Jerry sees off Tomfoolery

Jerry Maguire Cameron Crowe (15)
If it does nothing else, writer / director Cameron Crowe's multi- Oscar-nominated meditation on one man's quest for the meaning of existence, and the 1990s, answers a question that has been plaguing a sizeable section of mankind ever since a certain star first appeared in Zeffirelli's endless Endless Love way back in 1981, at the dawn of the "greed" decade: "What the hell is to be done with Tom Cruise?"

The answer turns out to be, as some critics always suspected, "Kill him." And that's precisely what this unexpectedly effective romantic comedy does before the opening credits have even finished unreeling. It murders the biggest box-office draw in the world or, more precisely, it kills off Cruise the arrogant, Cruise the overbearing, Cruise the ever-grinning, the Cruise who deserves to die just for having made Cocktail, Days of Thunder and Top Gun (we won't even speak of Far and Away). Farewell Tom, hello Jerry Maguire, the "best sports agent ever" - ever, that is, until he "suddenly sprouts a conscience" and promptly composes, in a spasm of late-night self-loathing, a mission statement attacking the almighty dollar and demanding that a corrupt business "return to personal relationships". The treatise might almost have been penned by Paul Newman, the callow Cruise's venerable pool mentor in The Color of Money, but giving vent to "The Things We Think But Never Say" duly gets Maguire fired from his job and, worse, strips him of his bullshit barrier - the monolithic masculine identity that comes from full-time employment.

Among the Things We Think But Don't Say is that Cruise had to get himself a new act, or at least act his age. As one character shorthands it for the hard-of-thinking: "He's early mid-crisis"; no longer a convincing boy, but still not quite... mature. If Jerry Maguire executes the cocky Cruise, it is also, as befits a Clinton-era movie, obsessed with rebirth (a second term means a second chance): Jerry's sacking comes a mere 24 hours after envious colleagues throw him a birthday party, and in case the lesson about professional death and personal growth doesn't register, the other movie going on inside the movie has Cruise spell it out, quoting his own age and recent interviews: "I was 35. I'd started my life."

Set against a depressed background of corporate downsizing, urban downshifting and deflated expectation, Jerry Maguire is, on the sly, a repudiation of everything the gung-ho Eighties image of Cruise stood for, even making iconographic mock of his trademark sunglasses. In Risky Business (Cruise as free-market pimp) and Top Gun (Cruise as a toy-boy soldier) the sunglasses were worn because, as the soundtrack song boasted, "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades". Here, the shades aren't sexy accessories, but hastily donned to hide suffering and damage, as when Cruise's brittle, high-flying fiancee (Kelly Preston) blackens his baby-blue eyes - more for betraying the American Dream than dumping her - and later, when Cruise crucially weeps at the prospect of losing his surrogate son (Jonathan Lipnicki) and the love of the single working mother (Renee Zellweger) who believes he's "nearly the man he ought to be".

In a film casually featuring a male nanny - "I prefer 'child technician' " - what men ought to be is Jerry Maguire's mystery to be solved. The movie's masterstroke - or maybe, as with The First Wives Club, it's just one of those lucky pop culture / celluloid collisions of concerns - is how Cameron's shrewdly observant script transforms a star's tardy market repositioning into a sign of the times: white collar, out of work, and useless about the house, increasing numbers of men must learn to find satisfaction and self in the place women have traditionally found it. Get a life means get an emotional life. Having called for a return to personal relationships, Jerry finds he's equipped with mere management skills.

"You're good at friendship but not at intimacy" is the refrain, and that's certainly true of Cruise's recessive past performances. Part of Cruise's appeal - as it was with Gable and Cooper - has been a holding back, not only from female co-stars, but from the camera. Caught in close- up, he can, like Robert Redford, appear (often invitingly) blank: get an emotional life. And from the early All The Right Moves to last summer's Mission Impossible, Cruise has belied his name by remaining resolutely static. It's the women who do the work; Cruise is possibly the most seduced male idol since Cary took it for Granted. What makes Jerry Maguire a messy, and therefore a genuinely modern romantic comedy - what gives it a swoon appeal missing from the genre since When Harry Met Sally - is that Cruise is finally forced to move forward. On a tricky date with Zellweger, he has to reveal himself in character, and as an actor and, for the first occasion on screen, he appears both avid, sexually anxious, and authentically grown-up. When he looks into Zellweger's eyes he seems to be seeing something other than his own reflection.

His unaccustomed sincerity redeems Jerry Maguire every moment it swerves toward formula. Indeed, the movie mostly sidesteps one's fears, just as Crowe's Say Anything and Singles did before they got too sticky. When black football player Rod Tidell (Cuba Gooding Jr) stays on as Jerry's sole remaining client, the expected male bonding is postponed by ritual humiliation and mutual unpleasantness - "Show. Me. The. Money." - yet it's the hitched and blissfully happy wide receiver who is the picture's repository of open feeling and motor mouthpiece for liberal family values. As he informs his agent, "A single mother is a sacred thing". That bluntly sentimental consciousness-raising is contrasted with the unconsciousness- raising of the sports scene, the last unambiguous arena where men can "prove" themselves. But, as Jerry Maguire suggests, it could take greater guts to admit "You make me complete" to the woman you've driven away, in front of a divorced women's group, and know what you're saying, than it takes to score a last-minute touchdown. Which is on its tearful way to a compromised Hollywood Happy Ending, but doesn't alter the fact that Jerry Maguire is to Tom Cruise's career what the Older album has been to George Michael's: part repentance, part acceptance, and a ready admission that, for men, it routinely takes disaster, and repetition of disaster, for them to grasp some pretty simple pointsn

On release from Friday