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Tom Cruise indicts himself as a lightweight in Jerry Maguire

In what could be an homage to that sappy aurally-challenged romance, Children of a Lesser God, Boyd and Maguire see a deaf couple sign their love, and Boyd, having had a hearing-impaired aunt, explains to Maguire that the man told his lover, "You complete me." Crowe charges every positive character in the movie to complete Maguire--and they're all inordinately happy to accept the assignment. The one who has the most fun with it is Tidwell, who'd be a jolly brown giant were he the 6'2", 220-pound prototype of an NFL wide receiver, and not a 5'10" mighty mite. Gooding imbues Tidwell with a small man's pride and rage, which is inherently funny when put inside a bruiser's physique. Gooding has the gusto that Cruise (for all his huffing and puffing) lacks; when Gooding screams "Show me the money," you know Tidwell isn't just being mercenary, but expressing his need to provide for his family and stake out his place in the sports universe. Yet Crowe softens up even this mini-Jove. He tries to milk poignancy as well as applause out of this little big man's moment of glory.

When Maguire has his mission statement bound at a 24-hour copy shop, he comments that the plain white lettering on the solid blue cover made it look like Catcher in the Rye. Salinger must be a touchstone for Crowe, who has an uncanny ear for the absurdity and latent poetry in the vernacular. But Jerry Maguire pushes him halfway into Jay McInerney territory: the movie is an uneasy blend of drug-free, marriage-minded faux-innocence and the post-collegiate knowingness that seduced millions of readers into buying Bright Lights, Big City as the second-generation yuppie truth. (In Jerry Maguire, as always, Cruise makes the tawdry palatable. If Cruise had played the hero in the movie version of Bright Lights instead of that real actor, Michael J. Fox -- who actually has complicated emotions, as he showed brilliantly in Casualties of War -- it might have been a hit.)

Jerry Maguire is surfacey and vague: a compendium of maverick-against-the-system and life-of-a-salesman cliches, gussied up with sports-talk parodies and in-jokes. Maguire is supposed to be hepped-up and desperate, like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success; cherishable, like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (Crowe visually quotes from that movie's office scenes); and triumphant-virtue incarnate, like the hero of a feel-good Capra flick. The movie kicks off with up-to-the-minute brashness, but in the end it's sentimental and conventional. In its own breezy way, Jerry Maguire uses the single mother as the repository of true morality (like married mothers in pre-Graduate movies). She's the fashionable new archetype--Madonna with sex appeal and child.

There's nothing sleazy about the film, or even about Cruise's plasticine presence. But their all-purpose affability doesn't take you anywhere you might not go while daydreaming over a Wheaties box. Cunningly balancing the agony of defeat with the thrill of victory, Jerry Maguire tells America's audience what it wants to hear these days: that nice guys can finish first. To skeptics, the movie proves that niceness is overrated.

Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

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