'Tin Cup' Just Might Score A Birdie at the Box Office

Macho rivalry pulls down sports spectacle, but Costner boosts it up

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Olympics have faded from TV screens, but Hollywood is on the job, ready to satisfy the ongoing appetite for sports-related excitement and rack up some profits along the way.

Ron Shelton's romantic comedy "Tin Cup" is well-timed in this regard, arriving in multiplexes with a high-powered cast and a big-budget publicity campaign. What's not clear is whether Kevin Costner playing golf for two hours will be greeted as a walloping good sequel to the recent Atlanta Games.

The title is a nickname for Costner's character, a small-time golf pro who presides over a run-down driving range in the middle of nowhere.

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He's loaded with talent, but discipline has always been his stumbling block. Golf, he tells a student near the beginning of the movie, is all about keeping control and letting yourself go. The second of those commandments has never been a problem for him, but the first part - staying calm, thinking things through, playing it safe - is something he's never mastered in golf or any other area of life.

The story kicks into gear when he falls in love with that student, Molly, a psychologist who counsels unhappy folks in the small town nearby. She's as smart and beautiful as he could wish, but her present boyfriend happens to be - wouldn't you know - a conceited golfer named David (Don Johnson), who's a rising star on the professional circuit and a longtime nemesis of our hero.

The time has come for Tin Cup to shake off his lethargy, dust off his clubs, and make a stab at the US Open, where a victory would win Molly's heart and put David in his place. But has the passage of time given him the discipline he needs? Or have years of slothfulness made his chances dimmer than ever?

No filmmaker knows the sporting scene better than Shelton, who launched his directorial career with the baseball comedy "Bull Durham," blended romance and basketball in "White Men Can't Jump," and debunked a major-league legend in "Cobb" two years ago. His movies are often flawed by vulgarity and overstatement, though. These problems hampered his single excursion outside the sporting world - the boisterous "Blaze," about a politician and a stripper - and ruined "Cobb," where Shelton earned the dubious distinction of coaching Tommy Lee Jones in his all-time-worst performance.

Overstatement takes a toll in "Tin Cup," too, stretching what might have been a taut and touching story into an overlong bout of good-old-boy humor and macho rivalry.

It's one thing for a fictional character to lack discipline, but where was Shelton's self-control when he piled up one golfing scene, gambling scene, and guys-getting-in-each-other's-face scene after another? If there's any activity that cries out for understatement it has to be golf, the most quiet and precise of major sports.

"Tin Cup" isn't exactly "Happy Gilmore" or "Caddyshack," which turned golf courses into all-out crazy houses. Still, it lacks the spirit of the sport it wants to celebrate, and that will probably hurt its prospects at the ticket window.

Then again, Costner's photogenic presence could pull it through. He's again an appealing romantic star now that he's gotten "Waterworld" out of his system, and Shelton has provided him with solid support: Rene Russo as the therapist who needs a therapist herself, Don Johnson as the egotistical golf star, and Cheech Marin in an excellent performance as the hero's best friend.

Shelton has also been clever enough to position the picture as an ordinary guy movie whose very vulgarity may be seen by some viewers as a refreshing break from the complicated plots of high-tech blockbusters and the airy sophistication of Jane Austen movies.

The characters of "Tin Cup" would still dine at waffle houses if they won every tournament in the world, and even William Ross's music score has a touch of Aaron Copland's brassy "Fanfare for the Common Man" coursing through it.

Add a truly suspenseful climax and a finale that recalls "Rocky," one of the biggest common-man hits ever made, and you have a sports-minded spectacle that might manage to score a box-office birdie after all.

*'Tin Cup' has an R rating. It contains much foul language, a sex scene, nudity, and drinking.

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