Water-Hazard World

Tin Cup: Kevin Costner defeated in golf war

A perky little armadillo bustles around under the titles of Ron Shelton's Tin Cup, snout out, tail high. After a while, it becomes clear that this creature is supposed to represent Kevin Costner's character, Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy. Of the two, it's the armadillo who'd have grounds to take offense at the comparison.

If, like me, you have found it embarrassing to watch Costner's attempts to turn himself into a mythic-scale American hero in the mold of Gary Cooper or James Stewart, wait'll you see him try to swing boyish adorableness in Tin Cup, Shelton's latest paean to arrested adolescence through sports.

What happened to Costner? He was buoyant and likable in Silverado, but as soon as he became a star he turned prim and glum. Even those qualities worked fairly well in The Untouchables and in JFK, but in almost everything else he's seemed like a frat kid going through his blue period. As Tin Cup, a Texas golf pro who's sabotaged his chances to be a tour star by glory-grabbing when he should have shot conservatively, the Kevster, instead of playing sullen, plays coy.

He comes across like a guy trying to get a smile out of a justly pissed-off girlfriend. It may be that, after the cool reception of his last few films, Costner has realized that not everyone necessarily sees him as the icon and/or sizzling sex god he knows himself to be, and that it might be a wise move to get the audience to like him. But he can't manage it; his energy is too low, his delivery too flat. He's no longer that smart-alecky kid from Silverado.

With a more appropriate actor in the lead--say, Beau Bridges or Robin Williams in his more relaxed mode--Tin Cup would be much better, but it's still Shelton at his least impressive. He's talented, but he wavers between, at his best, satirizing sports mania and, at his worst, buying into it. In Tin Cup, the satire is there, but the sentimentality overwhelms it. The plot is supposed to be a romantic triangle among Tin Cup, his old rival from his school team days who's now a big-time golfer, and a gorgeous local shrink (Rene Russo) who's taking golf lessons from Tin Cup to impress her boyfriend, the big shot (Don Johnson).

But the romantic angle seems less the focus than Tin Cup's quest for the U.S. Open title, which is supposed to have some sort of extra philosophical significance beyond just getting the girl. In case we're in any doubt, Shelton provides this Don Quixote of the green, who tilts at eagles rather than windmills, his own Sancho Panza in the form of Cheech Marin as Tin Cup's faithful caddy and stroke guru.

The only performer in the film allowed to shine, Marin is also the only actor in the film besides Costner and Russo who's allowed any screen time. There are good character players like Dennis Burkley and Lou Myers and Linda Hart among Tin Cup's entourage of lovable pals, but the roles, as written, are all but indistinguishable.

Johnson, though never much of an actor, comes across to some extent just because he's never looked better, flawlessly coifed and styled like a preppie god. The film is half over before Shelton realizes he's provided no real evidence that Johnson is the villain that Tin Cup and pals claim he is, and the gag in which this is economically established is the film's funniest.

Russo's role, as written, is incoherent, and while she's beautiful and competent as an actress, she doesn't have a strong enough personality on-screen to pull the character together from the mess of contradictory scenes she's given. Women, as a rule, tend not to do so well in Shelton's films. They're almost always disdainful sideline observers, weighed down pretty heavily by the hint that they just don't get it, or else, in the case of Bull Durham, the self-designated spoils of sport prowess. And even actresses like Susan Sarandon, Holly Palance, Pamela Reed, Rosie Perez and Tyra Ferrell have been expected to play second fiddle to the silly games of Shelton's boys.

In Roger Spottiswoode's criminally maligned comedy The Best of Times, which Shelton wrote, Robin Williams played a grown man haunted by the big pass he dropped in a high school football game; he absurdly blamed all the frustration and timidity in his life on this one slip. The film mocked him with affectionate ferocity, so that when he finally triumphed, it really seemed like comic justice.

I think it's Shelton's best and most insightful work about sports and their effect on male self-esteem. The hero of Tin Cup is far more laid-back than Williams' character, but Shelton and his co-writer, John Norville, aren't nudging him for his childish fantasies of victory--they take them seriously. At the end, as Tin Cup tries again and again for a shot only his ego needs to make, even if it means losing when he could win, it's like the whole sports-movie genre is thrashing around, trying to invent a new ending that gives us a lift without the simpleminded rah-rah of, say, The Mighty Ducks. But Shelton can't find that new ending because, finally, the rah-rah is still what he craves, and can't get past.

--M. V. Moorhead

Tin Cup: Directed by Ron Shelton; with Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Linda Hart, Dennis Burkley, Rex Linn and Lou Myers. Rated

 
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