Tin Cup
Directed by Ron Shelton. Starring Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Don Johnson, and Cheech Marin.

Ron Shelton's jubilant romantic comedy about a wild-man golfer restores my faith in American film. Hell, it restores my faith in American life. From the opening shots of dusk at a driving range on the outskirts of Salome, West Texas, where armadillos roam free and porch-loafers bet on which moth will fry on a bug light, Shelton creates a landscape that's more than the sum of its flora, fauna, sky, and sand. Even the road markers give off a ripe, raggedy resonance. The "Howdy, Friend -- You're Entering Salome, Texas" sign pictures the biblical stripper atop the legend "Where She Danced"; the billboard for the First Baptist Church stands next to towering letters that spell "Waffle House"; and the driving range itself proudly announces, "Last chance to hit golf balls fore 520 ML." The title song, "Little Bit Is Better Than Nada," begins to percolate in your head, and as Roy McAvoy, aka "Tin Cup" (Kevin Costner), takes a fierce slice or two at the golf ball, then challenges his cronies to wager on a riddle, a current of risky expectancy ripples through the air. Everything from the sight of a customized VW Beetle ball-retriever to the pop-hymn music surrounds you with a warm, inviting vibe -- one that McAvoy's spiky presence threatens to combust. This is the America of Ron Shelton: a place where a man can hang out without apology, secure in his own self-worth, until he's ready to take a leap into the void. Anyone who's appreciated Shelton's earlier films knows that the screen is being set for a tale of the cataclysms of the flesh and the ecstasies of earthly redemption. Tin Cup doesn't disappoint. By the end, a water trap becomes as life-altering and momentous as a baptismal font.

It's tempting to say that Shelton puts together movies the way a savvy manager puts together a team; after all, he has a knack for assembling sizzling lineups and he played minor-league baseball. But Shelton does something few managers do -- he not only brings out the best in his players, he also brings out the best in the ticket-buyers. Sitting at a preview in a mall theater a stone's throw from Pebble Beach, I rediscovered the communal bliss a big Hollywood film can engender when it gets viewers responding to wit, emotion, and personality rather than nerve pricks, chic, and mayhem. They -- I mean, we -- were with Roy McAvoy all the way, as he leaves his sodden, cozy existence as the pro at that armadillo-overrun driving range to try to qualify for the U.S. Open.

McAvoy mostly wants to win the heart of his sometime golf student, Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), the paramour of his erstwhile partner and current opponent, superslick touring pro David Simms (Don Johnson). But McAvoy also wants to go after a target (or as he puts it, pursue a quest) that provides a suitably grand outer focus for his multitude of "inner demons" (or as Dr. Griswold puts it, his "inner crapola"). As the writer/director of Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, and now Tin Cup (co-written with John Norville), Shelton exults in showing men and women working out their lives between pratfalls, the way Preston Sturges did throughout his career in films like Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and the way Frank Capra did at his lighthearted best, when he made films like Broadway Bill and It Happened One Night. Watching Tin Cup, you still believe that we live in a land where the wind blows free, even when it emanates from a hot-air artist like McAvoy. Unlike those earlier fractured fable-spinners, Shelton sets his stories in high- and low-rent sports arenas where entire environments release a sensual aura of play. Tin Cup takes a guy from arid Salome to the Oz-like greens of the U.S. Open, and brings him to amatory satisfaction and athletic glory in his own wayward fashion. The question isn't "What's not to like about this movie?" The question is "What's not to love?"

Critics often seem befuddled at Shelton's blend of jockhood and literacy, but his last "sports movie," Cobb, had as much to say about the magnificence and atrocity of manic individualism as Orson Welles' "newspaper movie," Citizen Kane. And in the realm of erotic farce Shelton manages, without nostalgia or self-consciousness, to conjure the ambience of exploding possibilities that gave the greatest screwball comedies an atmosphere of 100 percent pure laughing gas. As in the Sturges and Capra movies, radically different characters chase dreams that tangle -- or tango -- with each other. The helter-skelter open-endedness of America once made it the perfect backdrop for modern fairy tales, and Tin Cup views today's fairways and highways in that gritty-magical manner. For 133 minutes Shelton and his collaborators convince you that in their company, anything can happen. At the preview I attended, the film burned and broke at the worst instant -- when McAvoy was about to confront the devil inside him on the most important, daring shot of his bizarre career. A stranger sitting one seat away told me and his girlfriend (who worked at one of the mall stores), "I don't know if he's going to make that shot or not, but I've got so much respect built up for this movie I think I'll be happy either way."

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.

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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