Tom Cruise and director Cameron Crowe have pulled off a hell of a trick. They've made a near-perfect date movie about sport. Well, kind of. The opening sequence reveals that Jerry Maguire (the character) is America's "hottest" sports agent, yet, happily, Jerry Maguire (the movie) contains only five minutes of the arcana that is American Football. You don't need to know your "wide receiver" from your elbow, and it won't matter if you think a "fumble" is something to do with breasts. Anyone should be able to enjoy this refreshingly unsentimental Hollywood comedy, which actually manages to say something meaningful about love, sex, family, ethics and - - urgh - - responsibility.
If you're thinking this is the same sort of turf trod by Crowe's engaging 20-somethings-in-love debut Singles (1992), you'd be spot-on. Second time around, despite the shorter star and wider canvas, he continues to display admirable ease with his material: so light is his directorial touch, 138 minutes disappear with astonishing alacrity.
And sometimes it's as if Crowe's playing cheeky games with the audience. Every time we think we're on the brink of an over-schmaltzy sugar rush - - male bonding between the Cruiser and Cuba Gooding Jnr's motormouth Arizona Cardinals player; or Cruise's obligatory love scene - - the sparkling script pulls us back with a sight gag or a droll one-liner. It's a sterling technique, and it manages to sweep away all the prejudices that surface at the prospect of Cruise as yet another hot-shot professional. Sure, he still gets (and exploits) plenty of opportunities to smile that infuriating billion-dollar smile of his, but the unexpected joy of Jerry Maguire is that, as the aerobicised butt of Crowe's jokes, he displays a seldom-tapped gift for comedy.
The result is a collection of near-priceless moments: Cruise drunkenly pouring his heart out to Renée Zellweger's six-year-old son (Jonathan Lipnicki, making a strong bid for the title of Cutest Kid In Movie History), yelling ""I love black people!"" into a mobile phone to retain Cuba Gooding Jnr's loyalty, or scooping up a goldfish as a prospective business partner (you had to be there). For the first time since Rain Man, he seems content to let everyone else in the cast get their share of the limelight.
The actors who surround him could hardly be better, too. Gooding Jnr has a walloping whale of a time as the wide receiver who sticks by Jerry (think Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout, but read "perfect marriage" for "nasty drug addiction"), and, as the idealistic single mum who believes in and, of course, falls for Jerry, Zellweger is a revelation. In the background, laid-back Bonnie Hunt cracks wise as Zellweger's no-nonsense sister, and Beau Bridges puts in a telling cameo as the untrustworthy dad of the college star who could save Jerry's career. Ex-Eagle (and, lest we forget, perpetrator of infuriating white-trainer anthem The Heat Is On) Glen Frey pops up as the Cardinals' boss, and American Football fans can trainspot the dozen-or-so real-life players who flit in and out of the story.
The result is a no-nonsense hit. There's more wit in the first 15 minutes of Jerry Maguire than in Top Gun, Cocktail and Days Of Thunder rolled into one (big, unholy blob). If you fail to come out of this film smiling, you're probably clinically depressed.