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Swinging Comedy

Golf War: Don Johnson and Kevin Costner both take a swing at romance with Rene Russo in "Tin Cup."

Ron Shelton beats the course record to make the first good movie about golf

By Allen Barra

THERE'S AN old sportswriting adage that goes: "The smaller the ball, the better the book"--to which some anonymous wag added, "Which is why there's never been a good book about beach ball." To share this belief, one has to have the time to pursue golf avidly. Or at least one has to have time to read about it; I know people who have never picked up a nine iron who would swear that Dan Jenkins' Dead Solid Perfect ranks with Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al, Bernard Malamud's The Natural and Kevin Baker's Sometimes You Can See It Coming among the handful of best sports-related fictions ever.

There must be some inverse rule regarding sports movies, because outside of about 30 minutes of good footage in Caddyshack, there's never been a good golf movie. Until Ron Shelton's Tin Cup, that is. Tin Cup taps into that lazy, redneck-Zen quality of golf that's unknown to the northeast and West Coast, where the game is inseparable from Republican lawn parties. Shelton (who grew up in Louisiana and Southern California) has placed his lead character, Roy McAvoy, in a ramshackle West Texas golf range, where he caters to the guys who can't quite afford the country clubs. Roy (Kevin Costner) is a former college hotshot who could never quite make it on the pro circuit--precisely why is the subject of the movie.

One day a psychotherapist named Molly Griswold (Rene Russo) ambles in for golf lessons. Molly is a shrewd, no-bullshit charmer who wants to learn golf, and Roy can't see the bad news in any of this. The drawback turns out to be her boyfriend, David Simms, played by a grinning Don Johnson, a perennial also-ran golf pro.

Roy and David are acquaintances and old foes, and Costner and Johnson play them from the inside out. They're not really like two halves of the same character; they're more like the kind of characters Henry James would have written if he'd been Dan Jenkins. There's a funny and slightly eerie quality to the way Costner looks at Johnson, sort of the way the protagonist in James' "The Jolly Corner" might have looked at the ghost of the self he might have become. Roy looks at David, a semi-successful, soulless version of himself, and decides that the effort to turn himself into David wouldn't have been worth it. He wants to win, but on his own terms--and his own terms are what prevents him from being a success in the eyes of the world.

But not, he hopes, in the eyes of Molly Griswold. Roy, in order to gain Molly's attention, gets himself into the U.S. Open. It's the only element in the picture that seems far-fetched, but a plot has to have some impetus, and Shelton doesn't milk it for the usual big-finish melodramatic sports hokum. In fact, it's the first original ending to a sports-related film I can recall since, well, since the last Ron Shelton film I saw (Cobb) and the one before that (White Men Can't Jump).

More than The Hustler, and more even than James Toback's script for The Gambler, Shelton (a former minor-league ballplayer) understands the strange rhythms of competition and why some men aren't satisfied with just winning.

Kevin Costner, as he showed in Bull Durham, is very good at catching the nuances in Shelton's characters. In fact, after seeing him in Robin Hood and Wyatt Earp, I'm convinced that's all he's good at. He understands noble losers, but when he tries to play winners on screen, he comes off as shallow as Don Johnson's David. Shelton has given him a terrific character to play, a spiritual twin to Bull Durham's Crash Davis but with the talent that Crash didn't have.

Tin Cup is a miniature. Its world is narrow, and its pleasures are small--rather like those of golf itself. Shelton has now written the best script for a golf movie, for baseball movies (Bull Durham and Cobb), for a football movie (The Best of Times with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams) and a basketball movie (White Men Can't Jump). I'm with him until he takes on soccer.

Tin Cup (R; 130 min.), directed and written by Ron Shelton, photographed by Russell Boyd, and starring Kevin Costner, Don Johnson, Rene Russo and Cheech Marin.

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro

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