One of the many open secrets Shelton knows about top-rank amorous farces is that the secondary characters -- the rivals -- must be attractive to up the stakes for the main romance. David Simms is a likable sleaze. Johnson is one of the few post-'60s actors who can use a low-key smirk to win lovers and influence fans (it makes him seem self-amused and genuinely tickled by the passing show); if Simms weren't such a hypocrite (hawking charity to sell his public image), he'd simply be a consummate pro. And McAvoy's ex-lover Doreen (Linda Hart) is a pert, sensible gal -- the only honest-to-god, straight-ahead stripper in this summer's sea of exotic dancers. Hart reminds you how much fun it is to watch a character who knows his or her own business: Doreen tells one of the girls at her strip joint that she's got a nice natural look, but "we don't do natural." It feels right that love would blossom for her and McAvoy's partner, Romeo; he too is a can-do person. He's supposed to be the golfer's "stroke doctor," but he periodically offers more acute psychological advice than Dr. Griswold. Cheech Marin always has been a trouper, but in this film he gets to act; he enlivens the material, and deepens it. When McAvoy and Romeo have a huge, club-breaking spat, Marin shades the scene so that it's frightening and touching, not merely absurd; he brings a mortified sadness to it. His complicated response prepares the way for the duo to repair itself -- which is necessary, because this kind of tug-of-war relationship is probably what awaits McAvoy and Dr. Griswold.

"Nobody's perfect," the famous end line to Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, encapsulates a lot of what Tin Cup is all about, too. When McAvoy says "perfection is unattainable," he's talking about golf, but he's also expressing Ron Shelton's mind-set. McAvoy pushes Griswold for a "semi-Platonic" kiss; she says there's no such thing. But "semi-Platonism" suggests Shelton's philosophy. He respects ideals but showers affection on people who honestly fall short of them; like a brawling Blanche Du Bois, he's tolerant of everything except deliberate cruelty. He sees life as a daily stumble toward equilibrium, and he captures that vision in his penetrating yet panoramic eye (Russell Boyd did the robust, flavorful cinematography) and perhaps especially in his leisurely yet momentum-capped pacing. (Paul Seydor and Kimberly Ray did the audacious, varied editing; it's as deft at pinpointing emotion as it is at knotting viscera when a ball plops into a trap.) The original C&W songs on the soundtrack heat up Shelton's musicality to a tasty froth; the final number, "Back to Salome" (written and performed by Shawn Colvin), conveys the wistful poetry of the film's Southwest boomer brand of grunge. Shelton has the surest take on this country's egalitarian, improvisational folkways of any writer in any form today, and he conveys it in images and words that don't insist on their importance. In The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard wrote a dazzling speech comparing the construction of cricket bats to playwriting: "If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. ... What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might ... travel." Aside from that one aberrant bit in Bull Durham, Shelton never announces his literary aims like Stoppard; without the excess baggage, his ideas and feelings travel lighter and farther. This ebullient filmmaker would never say it, but his new movie is both an irresistible entertainment and a revitalizer for the soul. It's more than a Tin Cup -- it's a crackpot Holy Grail.

Tin Cup opens Friday, Aug. 16, at area theaters.

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