Tin Cup (1996, Ron Shelton)

Tin Cup’s got very few problems. It’s just a romantic comedy about a ne’er-do-well golf pro who decides to improve himself to impress his rival’s girlfriend. There’s a little more nuance to it, but not much. Kevin Costner plays the hero, Rene Russo plays the love interest, Don Johnson plays the other guy. Because all the cast members are in their forties, Tin Cup has a little more sophisticated air. Costner’s old enough to have become a would-be golf sage. Russo’s got a grown-up backstory with a lot of implications. Johnson… well, Johnson’s sort of ageless. The part’s a caricature, but it’s caricature Johnson passively exudes, so every utterance is a revelation of asshole.

But he’s not a great villain. He’s too likable. The movie gets away with it thanks to the cast’s charm, but it does sort of reduce the dramatic impact of Costner’s wooing Russo. There are a couple places in Cup where they avoid a topic or skip a thing because otherwise, it’d get too heavy. If it ever gets too weighty, it’s time to move on. Costner’s got a lot of West Texas golf pro zen monologues about golf to make, and those are funny and successful because Costner turns on the sincerity for a gag. But if you actually have to think about him—he’s basically an immature, lovable jackass who gets by thanks to innate intelligence and being good-looking and charming like a movie star. Costner’s against type partly because most of it requires a scrub, not a movie star.

What’s strange is the film leans into being more comedic in the first act and then dumbs it in the second. The third act is a sports movie and a good one, albeit a low-stakes one. Director Shelton goes out of his way to showcase Russo’s comedic ability, only for her to not be in the movie enough in the second act for them to matter. Once the sports story starts, Russo’s demoted, but she also gets a lot less comedy. So when she’s with Cheech Marin—who plays Costner’s best friend, caddy, sidekick, and conscience—it’s fantastic because she gets to have fun.

It’s when she’s not Johnson’s girlfriend; it’s when she’s got agency.

But most of Tin Cup’s problems resolve themselves, and a couple become strengths. For better or worse, demoting Russo in the second act changes the impact of the third on Costner, making him a fuller character and giving the dramatic sports finish even more gravitas. Shelton’s got a problem with changing the tone for it; it gets more serious—real golfers are cameoing now—and almost all the jokes are gone. But it also makes the third act stand alone and special. Tin Cup’s an exquisitely produced film.

For the most part.

It has what I assume is a 1996 Top 40s Country-Western soundtrack. Shelton seems to try to cover for the pointless tracks with on-the-nose tracks (there are golf country songs), but the music doesn’t fit the characters. At times we’re supposed to think Kevin Costner is listening to these songs on his Walkman. Or at least the songs are playing, and Costner is inexplicably wearing a Walkman like he lost a bet to a guy at Sony, so maybe he’s listening to them? It seems more like he’d be listening to books on tape—for the character at his place in the movie, even if it were a golf book—but Costner gets zero self-improvement.

Tin Cup is about being so special at one thing, you never have to say you’re sorry for anything else.

Wow; sort of a metaphor for how the movie can still be good with that lousy soundtrack. William Ross does the score, and it’s okay—it really comes in for the sports finale, but then it’s basically just Hoosiers music—so I don’t know if he’d have brought enough personality. But the movie begs for a good score versus lousy songs.

Though there’s a Chris Isaak song where you realize Costner’s mooning over Russo isn’t as dramatic or romantic as the song, which then makes it too serious for a moment. It’s an interesting glimpse into the movie being done straight dramatic.

And the last song isn’t not catchy. The sex scene song, however, is grating. Though the sex scenes themselves are a little pointless. So, regular romantic comedy problems, but with a good cast and a fine production. And a terrible, worst kind of media conglomerate synergy soundtrack.

All the performances are good with asterisks. Russo’s excellent in the first act until she gets reduced to girlfriend in the second act. Johnson’s outstanding, but it’s a thin part. Costner’s successful, but it’s hard not to be successful when the movie’s about your character never actually being wrong and usually quite the opposite. He’s a little loose on the more comedic—Marin’s there to pick up the slack—but he’s got the sincerity. And when scenes do go wrong, it’s not Costner’s fault. It’s the soundtrack.

Tin Cup’s a mostly delightful nineties romantic comedy. One’s mileage may vary with the soundtrack—even if you like the songs, they’re pointless selections. Costner, Russo, Marin, and Johnson are a fine team. Linda Hart’s good as Costner’s ex.

It’s a good time.


6 Comments

  1. Michael

    Never been a big Costner fan but the rest of the cast is appealing. In particular, I like the idea of seeing Russo honing her comedy skills. I think she is a great actress but find many of the comedies she has been in were too broad for her talents.

    1. Andrew Wickliffe

      Agreed. And it seems like the movie’s a fan of her, so the showcase makes sense, but then it’s bittersweet after they ditch it; she really got unlucky with those early aughts comedies. It’s too bad Barry Sonnefeld didn’t bring her along for MEN IN BLACK (but did drag her into BIG TROUBLE) :/