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11:00 PM, Dec 29, 1996 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Hollywood loves "high-concept movies," films whose plots can be summarized in a single phrase, like "dinosaurs come back to life in an amusement park." So besotted is the motionpicture industry with the high-concept approach that many movies no longer even need plots at all, only titles -- Twister, for example, not to mention the upcoming Volcano and Titanic. The plot of the new Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire can be captured in a simple phrase: "Sports agent undergoes personal crisis." True, that doesn't sound like much, especially considering that Jerry Maguire lasts well over two hours.

It is. Jerry Maguire is the best American film of the year, maybe of the last few years. Nothing that happens in Jerry Maguire is predictable - - -not a plot development, not a joke, not even a camera angle. It seems like decades since a mainstream American movie devoid of special effects or a fantastical storyline has been able to surprise us, to show us something new. It is even more remarkable that the first one to do so in memory stars Tom Cruise, the biggest box-office draw in motion pictures, giving a revelatory performance.

The wondrously deafening explosion you hear as you watch Jerry Maguire is the sound of the most tiresome Hollywood cliches of the last 20 years being atomized. The first surprise writer-director Cameron Crowe springs on us comes in the opening sequence. Usually, movies about the moral transformation of a jerk spend half an hour proving what the audience knows in 30 seconds: The main character is a completely inauthentic liar who gets his way with charm and guile. Rather than belabor the point for 45 minutes, as other movies would -- and thereby make us love the inauthentic man and hate the reformed sinner whose goodness is then shoved down our throats for the remainder of the movie -- Crowe manages to get us through this part with dazzling speed.

At a weekend getaway for sports agents, among whom he is a king, Jerry Maguire mistakes a bout of food poisoning for a crisis of conscience and bats out a 25-page manifesto in his hotel room about the moral degeneration of his business. He has the document printed up and delivered to every sports agent in the hotel. But once his illness clears, so does his conscience, and Jerry tries to get the copies of his manifesto back. Too late: He receives a standing ovation from his colleagues as he walks through the hotel lobby -- among them a gawky accountant in his firm named Dorothy (the breathtaking Renee Zellweger) so dazzled by his newfound moral authority that she immediately falls in love with him. Jerry thinks he's dodged a bullet and returns to Los Angeles to enjoy his life with a beautiful and chilly fiancee (Kelly Preston) and a vast collection of friends who are, of course, anything but.

A few days later he is brutally fired by his one-time protege -- and, in a spectacular depiction of an economic war conducted in one afternoon's time over the telephone, loses all his clients but one. Jerry is suddenly friendless and alone save for Dorothy, who impulsively agrees to come work for him even though she is a single mother of a five-year-old boy.

That's just the first 15 minutes of Jerry Maguire -- and it is only at this point that the movie begins in earnest. What will Jerry Maguire be like now that he has been laid low? Crowe offers no simple answer. The new Jerry proves both kind and desperately selfish toward Dorothy, who becomes his lover when his engagement ends. He behaves like a coward, especially when dealing with his last remaining client, a money-grubbing, petulant, but exuberant wide receiver limned by the supercharged young actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. (The wide receiver's relatives come to play an important part in the story, and in their scenes Crowe offers an astonishingly sensitive and unusually honest depiction of a black family.)