Some movie genres are lucky enough to have expert filmmakers working their side of the street. Gangster films have Martin Scorsese, for example, and sports movies have Ron Shelton.Of course, Scorsese’s films aren’t just about gangsters, and Shelton’s movies — Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb, and now Tin Cup — are never just about the game. They’re gentle comedies of masculine mythology (except for Cobb, which was far from gentle). Shelton’s heroes are boys who never grew up.
The boy in Tin Cup is Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner), a legendary golfer — legendary, that is, for his lack of discipline and wasted potential. Roy, who can’t resist going for risky long drives, had the big time in his grasp and blew it; now he gives lessons at his run-down Texas range and takes good-natured abuse from his caddy Romeo (Cheech Marin, continuing his run of hilarious comeback performances). Roy is fairly content with his lot until two figures disrupt his stagnation, like a cartoon devil-angel duo sitting on his shoulders. The devil is David Simms (Don Johnson), a smug pro who made the bigs by “laying up” (going for safe shots) and who relishes the chance to offer Roy a job as his caddy. The angel is Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), a psychologist who comes to Roy for lessons and ends up learning a good deal more.
Shelton, who wrote the script with John Norville, sets up a parallel romance/competition: Molly, as it turns out, is dating Simms, and to win her heart, Roy decides he must beat Simms at the U.S. Open. But winning isn’t all Shelton has in mind. He’s more interested in what Jay McInerney called “the shabby nobility of failing” — that is, failing on one’s own terms rather than winning by playing it safe.
Working again with the director who guided his best performance (in Bull Durham), Kevin Costner proves what a lot of us have known about him all along. Put him in a mega-budget action flick as a Mel Gibson clone, and he looks groggy and irritable. Give him a fleshed-out character whose sense of humor is as strong as his code of ethics, and Costner relaxes and never puts a foot wrong. And we can feel the pleasure he takes in delivering Shelton’s pitch-perfect dialogue.
At some point, Tin Cup divides our responses. When the inevitable final round approaches, with Roy facing off against Simms, we want the basic movie satisfaction of Roy trouncing his insufferable rival. Yet Molly (another witty turn by Russo), like all Shelton women, keeps things in perspective: It’s only a game. Will Roy be false to himself in order to win? Molly’s final advice during the game sets Roy straight. The movie, like Shelton’s others, is an illustration of the old maxim: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” For Shelton, and for Roy, that wisdom extends past golf. Athletes and fans love to position their sport as a metaphor for life (and vice versa). Shelton does something similar — he uses sports as an excuse for life lessons. But the lessons go down with beautiful ease and charm. In its low-key, scruffy way, Tin Cup is Hollywood’s class act of the summer.