Par for the course

Although my father has hidden it well, his greatest parenting disappointment probably has been that a jock like him produced an offspring as indifferent to sports as his only son. Sure, the Olympics are great, rah-rah-rah for the college team and all that, but I must be missing something more. Does competitive athletic activity always have to be all-consuming? Must we look for--and invariably find--metaphors for sex, life, and politics every time two men pass a ball to one another? And if it's true that everything I need to know I learned in gym class, can someone please explain to me the infield fly rule again?

This apathy toward athletics might account for my peculiar, befuddled ambivalence toward Tin Cup, the latest sports comedy from writer-director Ron Shelton. This current rehash of his favorite theme awkwardly rambles along for well over two hours, with the narrative lurching about in fits and starts. But while Tin Cup is unfocused and frequently sloppy, there is no denying its predictable, lackadaisical appeal, like a comfortable but embarrassingly ratty pair of sneakers.

Tin Cup should be better than it is, considering how it features--as do nearly all of Shelton's movies--an interesting, idiosyncratic, and profoundly flawed athlete with a ridiculous nickname; sharp, salty dialogue; and even unrequited love. But the formulaic application of these elements--the very ones that should make Tin Cup unique--is ultimately the film's undoing. In almost all of his films (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Cobb), Shelton obsesses over marginal, vastly undervalued sports divas--minor-league ballplayers, pickup-hoops hustlers, and, now, weary golf pros. But his pathological fixation on peripheral athletes has grown routine and frustrating; he's taken a good idea and nearly sucked the life out of it through overuse.

Maybe if the dynamics of the plot were more inventive and surprising, Shelton's rigid protocols wouldn't seem as tired. But he won't win any awards for creativity with this love-of-sport, sport-of-love story. Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy (Kevin Costner), the "best golfer never to make it big," wrings out a meager existence by operating a driving range in the West Texas town of Salome. Occasionally he supplements his income by teaching unwitting duffers the mechanics of his Zen approach to golf. He's instantly smitten by his newest student--a therapist named Molly Griswold (Rene Russo)--but she's betrothed to Roy's nemesis, the slick, handsome golfer David Simms (Don Johnson). She's amused by Roy's goofy charms, but, after all, how could a sophisticated woman like her ever be interested in some poor, dumb, aging jock, anyway? As in most romantic comedies of this ilk, the lovebirds unravel their feelings for one another in due course, culminating in a face-off between the rival peacocks--in this instance, a battle on the fairways of the U.S. Open.

Shelton puts a tremendous amount of effort into sensualizing athletics in his movies, much more than my observance or participation in either could ever warrant. Bull Durham is cherished by women for Crash Davis' sexy "I believe in long wet kisses" speech, but remember: Crash wasn't just talking about women; he was talking about baseball. The gigantic betrayal of infidelity in White Men Can't Jump isn't defined as sleeping with another woman, but in playing blacktop one-on-one at the expense of your wife.

In Tin Cup, golf is the pastime plugged into Shelton's sports-as-metaphor-for-sex formula. But while there's a good deal of lip service paid to love in Tin Cup, the pitching of real woo is minimal--mostly just weak backseat reasoning, like teens trying to seduce each other at a drive-in. The love story has been eclipsed by The Game; romance is merely a premise for proving a point, a device Shelton uses for exercising his belief that every human endeavor can be reduced to a sports analogy, and every sport is tied up with sex. When Roy's game starts "shanking"--the term for a wobbly, lopsided fairway drive that carves from the sky an obscene parabola of despair--you can bet it has less to do with keeping his head down than it does with keeping his mind off Miss Molly.

The pendulum does swing both ways. As in relationships, merely winning the game doesn't matter so much as doing it better than anybody else. Simms can't swat balls nearly as well as Roy--no one can, we are constantly reminded--but he's played it safe and smart, and grown rich doing it that way. Roy, on the other hand, has spent most of his life shagging balls, but he believes in the poetry inherent in the perfectly hit ball. True mediocrity lies not in financial failure or anonymity, Roy believes, but in success that conforms to popular expectations. As a result, Tin Cup often feels like what the screenplay to The Natural might have been like had it been written by Ayn Rand.

What rescues the movie from its greatest deficiencies--a dreadfully contrived "therapy" session between Roy and Molly, and other endless, dull scenes--is how marvelously drawn most of the characters are. Costner portrays Roy with refreshing complexity. Roy is nasty and petty and short-tempered, and in his lack of discipline lies both his secret weapon and his hubris. He hasn't been tainted by success, so he has nothing to lose by doing it his way except what he already lacks--popular success. Tin Cup's willingness to show the brutally unattractive sides to its hero even as it makes the "villain" cavalier and charming gives the movie a few jolts of energy that the story otherwise lacks.

But while Don Johnson, with his devilish, winking smugness, and Cheech Marin as Roy's sidekick, Romeo, lend great support, they can't quite make up for the stiff performance of Rene Russo. The part of Molly is woefully underwritten--why she moved to Salome to start a therapy practice is one of the many unexplored contrivances she's forced to grapple with--but we've come to expect her to give credence to these kinds of roles. Yet Russo fails to shoulder her end of the bargain: making the love affair work. After the movie was over, the woman sitting next to me said, "She's no Susan Sarandon." And Tin Cup is no Bull Durham--no matter how hard it tries.

Tin Cup. Warner Bros. Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin. Written by John Norville and Ron Shelton. Directed by Ron Shelton. Opens August 16.


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