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The Games Men Play

Shelton and Costner team up again for more sporting success

Now that Kevin Costner has gotten Wyatt Earp and Waterworld out of his system, and Ron Shelton has gotten Cobb out of his, it's good to see both men back to doing what they do best. Tin Cup is an immensely appealing and often riotously funny romantic comedy, very much in the tradition of Bull Durham. And like Bull Durham, which Shelton wrote and directed, it gives Costner a welcome opportunity to play to his strengths in a way that reaffirms his superstar credentials. It's all well and good that, as an actor, Costner might want to stretch himself and tackle new challenges. But really, he's much more at ease, and much, much more fun to watch, when he isn't spending most of his time below sea level, or all of his time in a broodingly antiheroic funk.

Don't misunderstand: Costner isn't merely coasting on charisma in Tin Cup. Roy McAvoy, the character he plays so winningly, is a good deal more complex than the standard-issue leading man and places serious demands on Costner's ability to convey subtle nuances and dark undercurrents. In many respects, this is the most intriguingly multifaceted role Costner has had since he went on the run as an escaped convict in Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World. The thing is, when an actor is able to make everything look as effortless as Costner does here, his work is likely to be undervalued, simply because it doesn't seem like acting at all.

Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy is a once-promising PGA prospect who now lives, works and drinks in the obscurity of a small-town Texas driving range. Roy could have been a contender, if only he weren't so eager -- or, to be more precise, so obsessed -- to "go for it" whenever the opportunity arises. As far as Roy is concerned, the shortest distance between two points is the road to be avoided at any cost. A conservative player might look at a green and figure he could easily sink a ball with two putts. Not Roy. He'll look at the same set of variables and feel compelled to try to sink the shot in one. Mind you, he might actually be able to do it -- but only once out of a dozen or so tries.

David Simms (Don Johnson), a longtime rival, tries to help Roy understand that "sometimes, par is good enough to win." But for Roy, winning isn't enough. What matters is how you win. He's romanticized his compulsive risk-taking as his way of doing battle with "my inner demons and human frailties." But Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), a sharp-eyed psychologist, sees right through that rationalization. "You don't have inner demons," she tells Roy. "You have ... inner crappola."

As Tin Cup begins, Roy's eking out a living with his driving range in the West Texas wilderness. To supplement his meager income, Roy also gives golfing lessons -- on a cash-only basis, to avoid the inconvenience of IRS reports. Late one afternoon, Molly shows up, decked out in high-tech gear she purchased by phone from the Golf Channel. She wants to be taught by an expert. And Roy is the only person within a hundred miles or so who fits that description.

Roy, sounding like a cross between a New Age mystic and scruffy con artist, instructs her with highfalutin metaphors -- "It's about gaining control of your life and letting go at the same time!" -- while positioning himself to get a better view of Molly's rear end. The good news is, Molly is slightly attracted by Roy's come-on. The bad news is, she's David Simms' steady girlfriend.

If Roy represents a worst-case scenario of undisciplined foolhardiness, then David is a success story based on surface charm, minimum risk-taking and smooth-talking insincerity. Ever since their days together at the University of Houston, David has been the one who always said the right thing and used the right club. As a result, he's the one who has his own charity golf tournament, while Roy lives in a trailer on his driving range. And mind you, Roy won't even get to keep the driving range long; he has to sign over the deed to settle a gambling debt with his ex-girlfriend, Doreen (Linda Hart). So when David drops by to offer Roy a job as his caddie for the charity tournament, Roy can't afford to be offended by the condescension.

Even as a caddie, however, Roy can't control his impulse to take pointless, self-aggrandizing risks. He doesn't last long in the job, but the experience rekindles his competitive instincts. It also helps, of course, that he falls head over heels for Molly. With his best buddy, Romeo (Cheech Marin), onboard as his caddie, Roy sets out to win the U.S. Open. The only thing that stands in his way -- well, the only thing other than his own self-destructiveness -- is his job as manager of the driving range that was once his. Doreen may still be his friend, but now she's also his boss. "Here I am, ready to charge forth and pursue my mythic destiny," Roy complains, "and I can't even get time off from work to do it."

Ron Shelton, directing from a screenplay he co-wrote with John Norville, sticks fairly close to the formula that proved so potent in Bull Durham. Once again, we have a has-been on the verge of being a never-will-be, an intelligent and sexy grown-up woman, a flashy rival who makes all the right moves and a romantic triangle that brings out both the best and the worst in everyone involved. A certain degree of self-awareness is achieved, and two initially wary mavericks recognize each other as soul mates.

Tin Cup lacks the edge of melancholy that Shelton brought to the second half of Bull Durham, which ends with two players finally acknowledging the limitations of their games, but he does something equally risky. In the final scenes of Tin Cup, he undercuts his happy ending by suggesting that, on a very basic level, Roy will never change -- and that that might not be such a good thing.

As Roy, Costner is more than simply ingratiating and amusing, he's positively fearless. When the dark side of the character must bubble up to the surface, in a scene that blurs the distinction between stubbornness and psychosis, Costner remains true to his character's contradictions without worrying whether he will appear less lovable.

Another indication of Costner's confidence in himself: he usually appears opposite leading ladies who are roughly his own age. As Molly, a brainy and beautiful woman who trained in psychotherapy only after she went bust in the real-estate game, Russo strikes the perfect balance of skittishness and self-assurance. (During moments of stress, she still wonders whether she was better off selling condos in Corpus Christi.) Right from the start, Russo and Costner generate a slow-simmering heat, trading barbed quips with a no-sweat ease that adds sparkle to the brightly witty dialogue. "I'm smitten with you," Roy announces at one point. The line is typical of Shelton -- lightly stylized speech grounded in earthy, heartfelt emotion -- and in this context, it's altogether appropriate. After all, what guy in his right mind wouldn't be smitten with the woman Russo plays?

Don Johnson is so well-cast as David Simms that one is tempted to describe his performance as self-parody. (It wouldn't be the first time Johnson has mocked his own tabloid image -- consider his performance as a preening egomaniac in Guilty as Sin.) Look a bit closer at the character, however, and you can see that, beneath the satire, there's a sharply drawn and fully developed portrait of a glad-handing golden boy who has refined shallowness to the level of an art form. Likewise, Cheech Marin is richly comical in what at first appears to be just a comic-relief character. As the movie progresses, Romeo reveals more depth and greater insight. It's to Marin's credit that he can handle every challenge the role offers.

Tin Cup is smart, sexy and funny in all the right measures, and should please anyone in the market for a grown-up romantic comedy. Better still, you don't have to know a double bogey from a double play to make sense of the sequences that involve golf. All you have to do is sit back and let these masters do their finest work.

Tin Cup.
Directed by Ron Shelton. With Kevin Costner, Don Johnson and Rene Russo. Rated R. 130 minutes.

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