Five Oscar nominations, but fewer real laughs

Tom Cruise is a sports agent who saves his soul and earns a fortune. But that's not enough to make 'Jerry Maguire' a success
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Great moments of revelation in Western culture: Saul on the road to Damascus; Petrarch on the summit of Mt Ventoux; Luther in the choir; and now, Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise), during the opening sequence of Cameron Crowe's film of that name. A showy, sharply edited, adequately funny montage of scenes from Jerry's life as an unscrupulous sports agent - made all the punchier by being set to a live version of The Who's "Magic Bus" (has Mr Crowe been watching Mr Scorsese?) - this set-piece establishes the man as ripe for an early mid-life crisis, which duly slams in with the words, "I couldn't escape one simple truth. I hated myself." Inflamed by his epiphany, Jerry sits down at the word processor and, as The Who's music modulates from rocker to mellow ballad, writes the vision up into a manifesto. Jerry has realised that what he really wants to do with the rest of his life is ... to represent fewer clients.

Well, it wasn't likely that he was going to go off and found a world religion, but the bathos of Jerry's conclusion here stops the film's pleasing headlong movement dead in its tracks, and it never picks up real velocity again. Apart from the odd lapse into emetic cuteness, Jerry Maguire (15) feels like a modest little film that is trying to pass itself off as something rather grander, maybe even profound, and probably about the need for guys to get in touch with their female side. (The last time I tried it, I ended up slapping myself and apologising.) It runs for the best part of two and a half hours, less because its narrative demands an epic scale than from Crowe's apparent reluctance to yell "cut!" on dragging scenes which have long since outworn their welcome. The Oscar committee, which has put this unremarkable piece up for five Awards, must contain a lot of professionals who want to be told nice stories about losing the world but finding your soul.

Ah, but then - it will surprise few, and should spoil the enjoyment of none to be told this - Jerry eventually manages to have both the world and his soul. Crowe's plot is not overburdened with complexity. Dumped by his agency for daring to talk morals, punched in the face by his luscious fiancee (Kelly Preston) and left with only one client, a stroppy football player and staunch family man (Cuba Gooding Jr, in a part which begins in gross caricature but gathers a fair degree of weight around the middle reels), Jerry hits rock bottom. Redemption comes, as so often, in female form: Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), a single mother who is the only one to stand by Jerry after he's fired, and who gradually evolves from employee to date to wife. It takes effort, but eventually Dorothy and her winsome son render the jerk capable of saying things like "You complete me" right in front of a rancorous women's group. (Who, despite their views on the gender, melt at his words. Right.)

Were it a less doggedly conventional film, Jerry Maguire would be content to stop here, with the Cruise character duly humanised as he was in, say, Rain Man. But this is a film in which every good boy deserves fortunes, and millions of dollars obligingly flutter down on Jerry's reborn career - a move which would have been easier to forgive had the laughs come quicker and thicker, or the romance been managed with more sparkle. It will be no scandal if Cruise bags the Best Actor award, though, since the film would have been a good deal less substantial still without his engaging presence. You leave the cinema feeling the same kind of gratitude to him you might feel to the one civil guest at an otherwise tiresome party.

For anyone who was put through the emotional mangle a quarter of a century ago by Bob Rafelson directing Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens, the spectacle of their latest reunion for Blood and Wine (18) cannot but provoke sentiments of sic transit, especially since Rafelson has described those three films as forming an unpremeditated trilogy about dysfunctional families. The new offering toes the genre lines that Rafelson's earliest films transgressed so nonchalantly and to such devastating effect, and however much you might want to hunt out its spiritual depths for old time's sake, it seldom rises far above the level of reasonably classy thriller with nice touches.

At times, very nice indeed; Michael Caine is on wickedly good form as Victor, a vicious English safecracker, bent on smoking himself to death, who is hired by a predatory wine merchant, Alex (Jack Nicholson), to help him steal a valuable necklace - a plot unwittingly derailed by Alex's wife (Judy Davis, wasted), stepson (Stephen Dorm, dull) and mistress (Jennifer Lopez, unsurprising), with fatal consequences for most. Caine gives Blood and Wine most of the sourly comic touches it needs to drag itself out of the rut, and he has one speech - a hacked-off commentary on the ratty motel room in which he and Nicholson are holed up, beginning "This is not an ocean-front suite in Marbella" - that is almost as priceless as their swag. His scenes with Nicholson can be exquisitely nasty: dirty rotten scoundrels, indeed.

Normal Life (18) is book-ended with the regulation hail of bullets and trail of corpses, but the guts of the film are closer to Strindberg or Zola than to Schwarzenegger. Directed by John McNaughton, who made the ferociously praised Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (not my cup of plasma, frankly), it's essentially the portrait of a doomed proletarian marriage between Chris, a well-intentioned, lovesick sap of a policeman (the quondam teenage wet dream Luke Perry, selflessly hiding his pretty- boy looks behind a tacky moustache) and his deranged child bride Pam (Ashley Judd), a kewpie doll possessed by demonic legions. Pam's poor housekeeping habits drive them so far into debt that hubby has no alternative but to pack an Uzi, don a fake beard still uglier than his real facial hair, and start holding up banks.

There are more wrinkles than you might expect. Pam, particularly, is something of an original. Where most of the women in movies about blue- collar couples going on gonzo crime sprees are (a) extremely dim and (b) played by Juliette Lewis, Ms Judd's character has all the baroque neuroses and singularity usually reserved for New York literati. An astronomy nut, she reads Stephen Hawking while listening to thrash metal and smoking dope; runs up vast credit-card bills on accessories for her telescope; calls her dog "Chaos", presumably after the theory; and knows how to use the term "event horizon". McNaughton has a marksman's eye for everyday bleakness, and the courage not to keep goosing his audience with needless bursts of gunplay. Much of the film is a grim, slow-burning horror comic about a mad woman pulling a weak man down to hell. It cuts deeper than a lot of more overtly ambitious films.

On which note: Swann (15), adapted from the novel by Carol Shields and directed by Anna Benson Gyles, is a curious hybrid of Gothic rural mystery story and sprightly urban literary satire - not, despite the title, of Proust and his circle - the latter portions tending to be the happier. Sarah Maloney (Miranda Richardson) is a chic, tough, bestselling author with feminist pretentions and boyfriend problems, who has just picked up an advance of six figures - groans of cupidity and disbelief echoed across the screening-room - to write the biography of Mary Swann, an all- but-unknown hick poet from Ontario who, after being axed to death by her husband, has been boosted as a latter-day Emily Dickinson. A rather too predictable twist lies in wait, concerning Rose Hindmarch (Brenda Fricker), the local librarian who has been the chief tender of the poet's flame. Some of Swann feels literary in the pejorative sense - more engrossed with elaborating conceits than telling a story - though it's an agreeable enough watch, and not a bad listen: Richard Rodney Bennett's score is a model of tact in a period when soundtrack music is becoming ever more pushy and cloying.

Two limited releases by way of pay-off. Irma Vep (no cert), written and directed by the former critic Olivier Assayas, is a rambling, fitfully inspired film-about-filming, in which Rene Vidal, an erratic middle-aged director (Jean-Pierre Leaud, whose face - one of the most flagrantly beautiful in the history of young male leads - is ageing into a tragic mask) hires a lissom English-speaking actress from Hong Kong action films (Maggie Cheung) to play the role of the heroine Irma Vep in a remake of Feuillade's silent series, Les Vampires (1915-16). It seems an accurate account of the agonies and idiocies involved in making a cheap art movie, and one suspects layer upon layer of jokes and cruelties lost on the outsider.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.