May 11, 2020
Available via Warner Archive;
Rated ‘R’ for language and brief nudity.
Stars Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson.
A kind of shaggy dog or shaggy bogey or shaggy something golf backdropped romantic comedy directed and co-written by Ron Shelton, 1996’s Tin Cup was about as popular at the box office as the filmmaker’s breakthrough Bull Durham, yet it isn’t talked about as much these days — perhaps due to Durham’s extraordinarily sustained shelf life as a movie that really caught on in the home market. It’s long and a little lumpy, but it’s my favorite golf film out of a limited pool, despite my decades of boundless affection for Martin & Lewis in The Caddy, which is the picture from which I caught the movie bug in 1953.
For one thing, it has one of the greatest premises for a romantic comedy that I’ve ever seen, as a practitioner of the No. 1 head game in sports (Kevin Costner) falls for a clinical psychologist (Rene Russo). I see that one of those cretins you sometimes see posting on IMDb.com said he didn’t like the picture because Russo didn’t act anything like real people in the profession do, but one of the key points here is that the latter has knocked around in sales and other professions before getting her certification and is hardly to the profession born. What’s more, if she weren’t in her own way as flakey as Costner, their relationship could never get past the opening tee shot, which it barely does, anyway.
The setting is a West Texas driving rage that Costner operates and lives in sub-meagerly. I won’t say it’s out in the middle of nowhere, but you somehow know it isn’t a good sign when the logo on his establishment’s sign is an armadillo. Once a promising college golfer at the University of Houston, Costner has gone to professional seed over his habit of playing recklessly and his congenital refusal to follow the advice even of his caddy and all but live-in friend (Cheech Marin, in the best screen role he’s ever had aside from maybe parts in the earliest Cheech & Chong vehicles). Meanwhile, Costner’s chief college rival (a never-better Don Johnson) has become a name pro on the circuit. Those two are not dissimilar physical types, but I can’t tell if Shelton is trying to construct an alter ego thing or not.
Russo, who has a history of “following boyfriends” to wherever they are geographically, shows up at the range for golf lessons — and though this isn’t divulged right away, her current squeeze is a golfer who happens to be … well, guess. She can barely hit the ball when teeing off, so Costner has a lot of work to do, including polishing his faltering romantic patter. His familiar formulas aren’t working, partly because Russo sees right through him. She’s also too slow in picking up on the fact, which Costner fully knows from their long history, that super-slick Johnson is about as sincere as, say, Jim Bakker.
This is all an entertaining setup for what happens when Costner elects to attempt entry to the U.S. Open, which literally is “open” to any golfer who can qualify for entry — which, among other things, means not playing like a highly talented madman. This would encompass not intentionally snapping clubs like wishbones, using a 7-iron when it’s an eccentric choice for the shot and insulting your longtime caddy to the point where he walks off the course. Still, aside from the caddy part, Costner makes it work for him up to a point, though his behavior keeps adding strokes to a score and blowing what ought to be a cushion after he’s hit a hot streak.
The wide open settings of the movie’s second half are a photogenic contrast to the first, which spends a lot of time in and around the mold culture where Costner lives, works and has even had surprising success with women in the past, though none of them with Russo’s at least relative polish. There are at least a couple standout set pieces, the first being an incredible bet that Costner sets up in a bar on the tour, which involves a long drive through a narrow doorway and over a body of water to attempt an odds-defying feat.
The other one is simply terrific — a scene I’ve never forgotten and one I was highly anxious to see again. It involves Costner’s death-wish attempt to reach the green over (again) a body of water, and it isn’t pretty, yet ultimately, it’s jammed with grandeur — the kind sports fans will talk about for decades when the actual winner of the tournament will be a fuzzy memory except for those who qualify as the hard core.
All four leads really deliver in form-fitting roles, and though he wasn’t awarded top spot, Costner was one of three more to win a citation as best actor for 1996 from the New York Film Critics circle. He apparently had to be coached heavily to look like a competitive golfer, but he is such a good athlete in general (and a heavily skilled baseball player) that to my eye, at least, he looks convincing.