Dispensing with the hoary rise-and-fall of the orthodox sport saga, Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup starts the narrative at the epilogue, settling in with its self-sabotaging golf pro at the point of resignation, hiding on a dilapidated driving range miles from a competitor and worlds away from a tournament berth. Obscuring the tumultuous nature of his hero in a flood of flirtatious banter, Shelton masks anxiety beneath red-blooded bravado, forcing intermittent outbursts to disrupt the story as much as they disrupt the hacker’s swing and sex life. This warts and all complexity produces genuine laughs and palpable drama in equal measure, marrying new-age psychoanalysis and old-world macho bluster with a linguist’s aplomb, furnishing a bewitching tale of romance and redemption from outwardly low-stakes material.
Nursing beers and an undiagnosed chemical imbalance, Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner) wastes his days cracking wise with a coterie of hangers-on, always one shot away from a blackout and one shank away from a meltdown. His belligerence is disguised by a crafty coyness and the slightest pinch of a Texas accent, affectations that would charm anyone outside of his growing army of creditors and ex-lovers. Even his clubhouse witticisms have a touch of class, that is, until Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo) saunters in for lessons, her high-end duds and grad-school smarts providing the perfect antithesis to his sweat-soaked undershirt and tacky brain teasers.
Shelton loves their bodily exchange as much as their chatter, proliferating sexual tension through the swivel of Griswold’s hips and the glint of arousal in McAvoy’s eye as he places his hands to demonstrate stroke and sexual dominance. Molly preaches the purely cerebral, stressing the “gathering” of knowledge and spouting a string of philosophers, medical techniques and ideologies at the feet of her confused coach. Roy is the corporeal response to her intellect, emphasizing the arc of the swing through heavy insinuation and excessive force, inadvertently revealing his professional shortcomings (“Short follow through... unfinished look.”)
McAvoy evades these character flaws through doublespeak and misdirection, chalking up every disaster to a failed quest for immortality or “defining moment” foiled by a cunning adversary. His scapegoat for personal responsibility is David Simms (Don Johnson), a duplicitous PGA tour leader known for a calculated method of play and talent for cocksure trash talk that nearly rivals his “crapped-out” ex-teammate’s. If Simms’ meteoric rise to fame and courtship of Molly seem like trite narrative shortcuts, it’s only because Shelton is endeavoring to resolve Roy’s fear of success and intimacy in one fell swoop, positioning the closing U.S. Open dogfight as a cathartic venture for his brain and balls.
By ushering these insecurities to the surface, Shelton skewers male competition, both in sport and love, exposing the “dick measuring” as a self-perpetuating exercise in emotional dishonesty. Though Roy’s maturity on the green and in the boudoir can be attributed directly to therapy, his greatest victory is an acceptance of self by refusing to “play it safe,” embracing an uncompromising attitude on and off the links. Ron Shelton’s denial of melodramatic cliché is just as fulfilling, providing his audience with a salty underdog who merits an unlikely brush with greatness and fidelity.
Tin Cup (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1996)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by John Norville and Ron Shelton
Photographed by Russell Boyd