The Jets And The Sharks

.FT.-IF THE ENTREPRENEURIAL HIGHSCHOOLER TOM CRUISE PLAYED IN "RISKY BUSINESS" GREW UP, HE MIGHT WELL HAVE TURNED INTO JERRY MAGUIRE, THE SUCCESS-OBSESSED SPORTS AGENT CRUISE PLAYS IN CAMERON CROWE'S DELICIOUSLY SMART ROMANTIC COMEDY. HE'S A CLASSIC TYPE A HUSTLER--GOOD AT FRIENDSHIP, BAD AT INTIMACY--AND IT'S MADE HIM A STAR AT SPORTS MANAGEMENT INTERNATIONAL. THAT IS, UNTIL AN UNCHARACTERISTIC TWINGE OF SOUL-SEARCHING LEADS HIM TO WRITE A PASSIONATE "MISSION STATEMENT" CALLING FOR THE AGENCY TO CARE MORE FOR ITS CLIENTS THAN ITS PROFITS. A WEEK LATER, HE'S FIRED FOR HIS INAPPROPRIATE OUTBURST OF IDEALISM.

A shark out of water, Jerry has to start anew. His ambitious, highly sexed fiancee (Kelly Preston, whose lascivious opening line will never be forgotten) dumps him. All his clients abandon him except Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a second-rank NFL wide receiver with a jive mouth and a big appetite for fame and fortune. His only other ally is the sweet, ditsy Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), an accountant and single mom who leaves the sports agency to come with him on his solo venture, more than a little bedazzled by his killer smile.

We've been down this path of self-discovery with Cruise before, but Crowe's movie is a lot less predictable than you'd expect. What sets "Jerry Maguire" above any other romantic comedy this year is Crowe's writing. He captures the venal, high-stakes world of pro sports with deadly wit and an ex-journalist's sense of detail. He fills every scene with a vivid, funny, richly specific sense of character and an adult understanding of how hard a transaction love can be. Like his mentor, James L. Brooks (one of the film's producers), Crowe paints his canvas with busy, quirky brush strokes that keep you delightfully off balance.

Newcomer Zellwegger is a wonderful discovery. Her crinkly-eyed, pixilated charm is reminiscent of the young Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment." It's not just her character who brings to mind Billy Wilder's comedy of corporate corruption. Crowe employs a similar mix of sentiment and satire in this portrait of a man whose careerism curdles his soul. Cruise's charm hasn't been this potent in years. He and Zellwegger have a gentle, complex chemistry--she's someone he wills himself to love, against his nature--which makes this an unusually ambivalent romance.

Everyone in this crowded comedy gets to shine. Gooding is hilarious as the brash and desperate hot-dogger, and Regina King is fine as his shrewd and supportive wife. Preston has great fun with her cutthroat character; Bonnie Hunt is dry magic as Dorothy's cynical but protective sister, who doesn't trust Jerry's romantic intentions. But the scene-stealing honors go to the bespectacled, 5-year-old Jonathan Lipnicki, who's a goofy delight as Dorothy's son. A feel-good movie with sharp edges, "Jerry Maguire" is the holiday season's most unexpected gift.

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