By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Anyone under the delusion that the greed decade went away — indeed, that we got anything but greedier — should check out Cameron Crowe’s brashly engaging Jerry Maguire. In this freshly minted take on a spoiled yup’s fall and redemption, Tom Cruise plays a high-powered sports agent, Jerry Maguire, who lives in a frenzy of dealmaking. Jerry works for SMI (Sports Management International), the sports equivalent of a Hollywood talent agency like CAA; his clients include the top stars of baseball, football, and basketball. In an age of global marketing, the athletes are franchises, grinning jock pashas who sell products by selling themselves. Jerry is the shark on the sidelines, the guy with the cellular phone who turns a first-round draft choice into a multimillion-dollar endorsement industry.

To Jerry, everything’s a commodity: his clients, his bitch-goddess NFL-publicist fiancee (Kelly Preston), his life. He’s on a merry-go-round that won’t stop, and Crowe, whose previous films, Say Anything… (1989) and Singles (1992), gazed with affection upon the romantic yearnings of a newly cooled-out generation, here zigzags into denser, faster, more cynical terrain. For about 45 minutes, Jerry Maguire is an explosion of media-age filmmaking energy. Whether Jerry is closing deals or flirting through his bachelor party (pretty much another deal), Crowe catches us up in the mad unreality of it all — an adrenaline-capitalist high that just keeps feeding on itself.

Jerry, though, isn’t quite at home as master of the universe. He’s got everything, but deep down he knows he’s disconnected, wedded to nothing but his own pitches. In a crisis of conscience, he drafts a corporate ”mission statement” advocating that SMI pay more attention to fewer clients (for less revenue). Does he realize it’s heresy? Unconsciously, perhaps. Within days, he’s been fired, tossed off the merry-go-round, a dealmaker with no more deals to make.

Jerry Maguire is the story of how Jerry, cut loose from his identity, gently stumbles into a new kind of life. For a while, I expected a familiar sermon about a top gun who finds, like, his integrity, man. After all, how is Jerry going to satisfy his ego now? By writing fiction? Crowe, however, has something subtler in mind. Jerry still wants to be a sports agent. He just wants to slow down, to reconnect with his clients — with himself. Jerry Maguire doesn’t have a conventional narrative drive, and that’s part of its charm; it’s a movie of quick feints and jabs. Jerry dumps his fiancee and sets up shop with Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), a single mother so inspired by his mission statement — and his dimples — that she quits her job as an SMI bookkeeper to go to work for him. Jerry, likewise, hangs on to just one client, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), an upstart wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals who stakes his shot at superstardom on Jerry’s undivided loyalty.

To be or not to be — a human being, that is. That’s the question that courses through nearly every scene of Jerry Maguire. America’s favorite star is still on smiling Cruise control, but now he finesses it into a dance. He seduces — then steps back; he turns on the charm — then lets it slide into pools of doubt. It’s Cruise’s deftest performance yet as a slickster grasping for the decency in himself. As Dorothy, Renee Zellweger, with her oval face and slightly daffy little-girl voice, at first calls up images of a more petite Victoria Jackson, but she grows on you. When she turns her imploring stare on Cruise, she melts through his sheen the way Debra Winger melted through Richard Gere’s in An Officer and a Gentleman.

One of the most likable things about Jerry Maguire is the way it keeps throwing you curves. Jerry and Dorothy get married, but (small detail) he still has to fall in love with her. The biggest curve of all is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s ferocious star-making performance as Rod, the hot-dog rebel. Gooding, so earnest in Boyz N the Hood, here breaks loose into Ali-like flights of punchy, combative eloquence. When he ”magically” emerges from a mishap on the field, his ebullient reaction — fueled by the knowledge that now, at last, he’ll be ”shown” the money — calls up all the soulful real-world triumph the movie has been reaching for. It’s truly a feel-great moment. A-

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