McAvoy trains his sights on the U.S. Open because "it's not just the biggest golf tournament in the world" -- it's also "the most democratic. ... They can't ask if you're a garbageman or a bean-picker or a driving-range pro whose check is signed by a stripper." Shelton is a sublimely democratic moviemaker, as Jonathan Demme was before he went all melodramatic and cause-crazy (with Philadelphia) and as John Sayles would be if he knew how to make a character do more than fill out a panel in a Mother Jones-designed map of the country. Watching the weathered, 40-ish McAvoy swap barbs with his coach/caddie/driving-range pal, Romeo Posar (Cheech Marin), or swill beer with one of Shelton's trademark gangs of roadhouse regulars, you don't have time to wonder how this particular multicultural group of gagsters got together -- you're immediately caught up in their pointless bets and rhythmic banter. (The standouts in this bunch include Lou Myers, the sly, cantankerous black man who briefly outmouthed Tommy Lee Jones' Cobb, and Dennis Burkley, a rotund fellow with a drawling presence who has McAvoy's number: "The word 'normal' and him don't collide too often in the same sentence.") Who can hit a ball farthest with a seven iron? Is there a Waffle House in Odessa? These are the puzzlers that put an occasional jolt into their soused bonhomie. McAvoy takes up the center of this clique partly because he's the only one with a foot outside it -- he is, as Dr. Griswold notes, "a legendary striker of the golf ball." But McAvoy has gotten stuck; he's grown too comfy with a combination of mythic stature and marginal achievement. Over the last decade-and-a-half, he's given the lie to the "go for it" spirit that swept the country after Rocky. "When a defining moment comes along," he says, "you define the moment or the moment defines you." But Romeo recalls a "defining moment" when McAvoy's quixotic attempt to hit an "impossible cut" in the final round of the 1981 Tour Qualifying School took him out of the running: "That was a defining moment and the definition was shit!"

Since McAvoy has too much romance for his own good, it makes sense that the woman who catalyzes his baby steps toward adulthood is a determinedly rational shrink: "a neo-Jungian, postmodern Freudian, holistic secularist," namely Dr. Molly Griswold, resident therapist at the Salome Wellness Center. Costner and Russo are as opposite in acting styles as their characters are in belief systems, but they have a tingling chemistry. Costner may be playing a bughouse character, but for the third time (Bull Durham and A Perfect World are the other two), he's got his mind right as a performer. McAvoy likes to strut, and Costner is shrewd enough to let you in on the character's cock-of-the-walk irony.

Right from his start as a writer/director, Shelton showed a gift for making his actors look like "naturals," Costner in particular. But the famous "what I believe in" aria Shelton wrote for Costner in Bull Durham was actually one of this team's shakier moments; however enjoyable, the speech stood out as a calling card, for a first-time filmmaker feeling his oats and for an actor and character trying to assert his manhood. Shelton doesn't take any missteps like that in Tin Cup, and won't allow Costner to slip into self-aggrandizement. When Shelton hands Costner a joys-of-golf speech in this movie, it's clear that the character, not the actor or the writer/director, is showing off, enabling Costner to push it to the limit, into realms of homespun lyricism. "Tempo is everything, perfection unattainable," he says; to McAvoy, the golf swing is "about gaining control of your life and letting go at the same time." Of course, that also summarizes Costner's acting and Shelton's direction. McAvoy may think he has an instinctive lock on his identity, but he's wrong; the love-play and comedy detonate when Costner becomes amazingly malleable, alarmingly volatile. The romance takes root in a single close-up. At their initial instruction session McAvoy says that "no one's ever saddled him" with a feminist label, and Griswold quips, "You might try being saddled sometime -- the smell of leather, the sting of the whip ..." At the end of the lesson McAvoy asks, with an air of desperation, "Were you being literal or was that some kind of Freudian-type deal?" -- and Costner's face fills the screen with perplexed longing. Not only does he let you know he's hooked, he also hooks you along with him. We don't need much help: Russo's Griswold brings an unpretentious swank to the mating dance -- she's charming even when she's defensively putting on airs. The actress hits her apex in a jump-cut phone call to her shrink that conveys budding curiosity and emerging daffiness, like a Bergman monologue reworked by Chuck Jones. Russo's portrayal of sensibility besieged by sex is as beguiling as any of Diane Keaton's: For contemporary comedy, there could be no higher praise. Indeed, in a way, Tin Cup is the Woody Allen film Allen himself could never make -- the story of an educated woman who fulfills herself by dropping the "smart" guy and hooking up with the hell-raiser.

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