Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup has a genial, funky charm. It’s like Shelton’s great 1988 romantic baseball comedy, Bull Durham, only mellower. Set in the world of professional golf, the most relaxed — you could say laziest — of all major sports, the movie gives off a leisurely, sun-dappled glow, and it provides Kevin Costner with the kind of role that reminds you once again why he’s a star. It’s been easy to forget what a charismatic sly-dog actor Costner is, because he seems to spend most of his time in overproduced behemoths like Waterworld or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, movies in which he comes off as a depressed surf bum. Costner needs a role with humor. Comedy brings him out — it makes him crinkle up with pleasure — and watching Tin Cup, you can get a lift from his foxy enjoyment of life.
Costner’s Roy McAvoy is a golf wizard who didn’t have the discipline to make it as a pro. Drive for drive, putt for putt, he’s as good as any player there is. By nature, though, he can’t bring himself to play the percentages — to aim only for par, to sink a ball in four shots when there’s the slimmest chance of doing it in three. Roy has to go for the glory every time — it’s what he thinks the game’s about — and so, like a baseball power hitter who inevitably strikes out when he isn’t hitting home runs, he’s too inconsistent over the long haul to compete with the professionals, who do nothing but play percentages.
With his tournament days behind him, Roy has settled into a life of amiable middle-aged slackerdom. He owns a dilapidated driving range in the west Texas wilderness, where he gives the occasional golf lesson and, mostly, sits around drinking beer with his buddies. But Roy is shaken out of his complacency by the arrival of two characters: Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), a dazzling, sharp-tongued psychologist who’s looking to improve her long drive; and David Simms (Don Johnson), Roy’s old golf buddy, now a slick pro who wants Roy to caddy for him — and who, it turns out, is Molly’s boyfriend. Roy gives Molly a golf lesson in which the double entendres fly thick and fast. Listening to his golf-as-a-metaphor-for-life riffs, we think we know just where the movie is headed. Surely Roy, with his testosterone swing and ”short follow-through,” will have to learn the value of control — on and off the course. The beauty of Tin Cup, though, is the way it reverses our expectations, allowing Roy to stick to his overgrown-adolescent guns. He’s a man who won’t be tamed, and Costner, frowsy and rumpled, a glamour-puss who’s grown past glamour — he’s like Gary Cooper gone to seed — gets us to respond to Roy’s ornery grace, the side of him that loves the game so much he’s willing to lose.
Shelton hasn’t made a real knockout since Bull Durham (White Men Can’t Jump got bogged down in buddy-movie conventions; Cobb was a rancorous disaster), but when his mojo is working he invests American machismo with more wiliness and soul than any other contemporary director. His heroes display the kind of unabashed reverence for women that’s practically gone out of style. Yet since Shelton makes his heroines brainy and off center, he can get away with it. Roy is smitten with Molly, and it jump-starts his ambition. He decides to aim for a spot in the U.S. Open, and he becomes her ”patient” as well, using their impromptu therapy sessions to gain flirting time. Russo, who’s never had a role this good, gets a wisecrack to match every one of Costner’s. There’s something touchingly old-fashioned in the way her zeal plays off her outsize sensuality — the beautiful big jaw and cascading hair, the sad yet ravishing smile. Russo’s Molly is a woman who needs to be won, and Shelton succeeds in reviving what today’s ersatz screwball comedies only pay lip service to: the glory of the chase.
Most of this, naturally, is played out on the golf course. It was an inspired stroke to cast Don Johnson, with his unctuous charm, as Roy’s phony, smooth-as-silk rival, who compulsively ”lays up” (i.e., takes the conservative, percentage shot), because the two actors actually resemble each other — Costner is like Johnson with more integrity and less grooming. And Cheech Marin proves a cherubic scene stealer as Roy’s devoted mutt of a caddy, who isn’t above breaking Roy’s golf clubs in two in order to teach him a lesson. The biggest surprise of Tin Cup is that, after lulling us with its dreamy golf-and-romance rhythms, it turns out to be a far more thrilling sports movie than we expected. The climactic game, in which Roy, in a way that defies prediction, attempts to sink the shot of his life, is the most rousing sequence of the year, a celebration of what it really means to win. A-