Tin Cup: the most underappreciated romcom of the 1990s?

Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, golf and Ron Shelton. Why Tin Cup is a 90s classic...

We don’t write about many romantic comedies on this site. A couple of reasons. Firstly, a comfortable majority edge firmly towards the soon-to-be-official Netflix category known as “insufferable shit.” Secondly, as we’re regularly reminded, some things aren’t that geeky to write about (although we don’t quite interpret the rule that way).

More importantly, though, we don’t write about something like Pretty Woman very often because we’ve got nothing to say about it, at least at the moment.

Tin Cup, though? A whole different story.

“Sex and golf are the two things you can enjoy even if you’re not good at them.”

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My personal affinity towards the work of Kevin Costner is something I’ve never hidden. I can’t think of a movie star who took more bold choices at the height of their powers, and for the most part, continues to do so.

His record with romantic comedies, however, is a bit up and down. The Bodyguard I laughed quite a lot at, but I’m not sure it was meant to be a comedy. Rumor Has It didn’t really work for me, and Message In A Bottle had a last act that was bold, but steered it very firmly away from a genre it had only been flirting with in the first place.

However, Bull Durham stands tall, the first of Costner’s films made with writer-director Ron Shelton. Shelton has a career that demonstrates how to make a sports movie on the surface, but ultimately not really make it about sport at all. Examples? As well as Bull Durham, there’s White Men Can’t Jump, and Play It To The Bone, along with the extraordinary and little-seen Cobb.

I’m going to risk the wrath of many though by suggesting that not only is Tin Cup his finest sports movie, but also that it’s the best romantic comedy to come out of Hollywood in the 1990s.

From the off, there’s a relaxed confidence to Tin Cup. It’s not that it’s slow, rather it’s not in a hurry. It starts, for instance, at a golf driving range where armadillos amble around freely. Shelton keeps the music easy, puts in some shots of golfers firing shots into the sunset, and establishes a pace that he barely varies on for the rest of the movie.

But then pretty much everything he sets up in the first third of the movie he stays true to. In particular, the character of Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy. A brilliant hitter of a golf ball, he chugs back a beer, walks around in a vest when we first meet him, and to his loyal team, he puts a riddle.

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It’s the one about the father and son who both have an accident and end up in different hospitals. I won’t spoil it here, but it serves as a good entry point for the attitudes of the driving range team (who Shelton mines excellently for comedy, not least in the early stages), and the intelligence of Rene Russo’s Dr Griswold.

Rene Russo was a regular in blockbuster movies throughout the 1990s. Two Lethal Weapons were her highest profile roles, but she was always great value in Outbreak, Get Shorty, Ransom, In The Line Of Fire, and The Thomas Crown Affair, to name but a few (she was even mooted for Bruce Wayne’s love interest in Batman Forever, when Michael Keaton was still attached).

But I think I like her performance and character in Tin Cup best. Here, she’s a psychiatrist, who wants to learn a bit of golf, and she’s a marked contrast to McAvoy. Whereas McAvoy is self-destructive, impulsive and barely thinks more than a minute forward, Griswold is intelligent, far more controlled, yet unwilling to take a risk. It’s hard to buy quite why she’d be with Don Johnson’s wonderfully oily golfer David Simms, but we’ll come to that later.


Anyone even vaguely familiar with romantic comedies will see the ingredients assembling a mile off. Here are two characters who could learn something from each other, and perhaps need to. Both has something the other doesn’t.

Yet Russo doesn’t swoon into his arms, and it’s McAvoy who has to put more of himself on the line. There’s an easy self-depreciation to Costner’s performance here, and it particularly comes to the fore when he ends up subjecting himself to Griswold’s professional analysis. It’s one of several gently funny scenes in Tin Cup, that doesn’t go for an outright guffaw, but instead targets a slow burn chuckle, that sticks in your head for days.

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Anyway, the third part of the jigsaw is Johnson, in a role once earmarked for Pierce Brosnan. We didn’t get much of him in major movies in the 1990s, but here, he’s playing one of the best golf players on the planet, and a man who appreciates, and belittles, McAvoy’s ball-hitting genius. The status quo is established early on, when he hires a flat-broke McAvoy to caddy for him. This also establishes – and we see this several times over the film – the tendency of Costner’s character to self-destruct.

Now in lesser hands, when we get to the last act of the film, both Griswold and McAvoy would be completely changed characters, and they’ll each have learned something from the other. What I particularly love about Tin Cup though is that that never really happens.

Each has brought something out of the other, certainly, but the core of both characters lies in those we met back in the driving range at the start. They end up drawn together because they’re the same people, and McAvoy does indeed – come the big finale – self-destruct in the way that Shelton’s script has told us he will do throughout the film.

“You think a guy likes me bothers to worry about the percentages?”

Cards on the table, though: I absolutely love the end of Tin Cup. I think it’s genius. Because Ron Shelton sets it all up perfectly for the expected euphoric moment, where Roy McAvoy’s strategy of not avoiding risk, and not laying up and ever going for the safe shot, finally pays off.

The stakes are made clear. He reaches the final hole for the third and final time running in the tournament, and if he plays the sensible shot, he’s virtually assured of winning the US Open. Instead, though, he tries the big hit, and completely blows it.

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That said, at first, all goes to plan. And no matter how many times I watch the film, and know what’s coming, I always desperately want him to land the ball in the right place and finish first. Still, he hits the ball, it goes over the water, and lands within putting distance of the hole… only for said ball to trickle back into the water, as Johnson’s suitably smug – and safe – David Simms looks on.

Has McAvoy’s chance gone? Well, it certainly has by the time he again stays consistent with the character that’s been carefully crafted for the two hours beforehand. McAvoy, we’ve been told all along, will blow up at some point, and he seemingly does. He keeps playing the same shot over and over, dropping from the lead to 16th place in the process. And eventually, he’s down to the last ball in his bag. Instead of playing to win, he’s playing to avoid disqualification.

Then, and only then, does McAvoy get his Hollywood shot, with the ball finally clearing the water, landing perfectly in the hole. It’s the shot that purveyors of Hollywood romantic comedies had been expecting minutes earlier, and it only comes when the stakes have apparently been substantially reduced. But there’s the secret that Hollywood movies often forget: smaller stakes often pay bigger dividends.

It’s here when we get the moment where Russo’s and Costner’s character traits seem to temporarily reverse. McAvoy has a moment where he mourns what he’s lost. Griswald is euphoric. Shelton’s ending trick is complete: McAvoy hasn’t won the US open. He’s won, for want of a better way of putting it, sporting immortality. Nobody, we’re told, will remember who won the Open that year. Everyone will remember the man who took 12 shots to finish the final hole. Shelton further makes his point as we see Simms digging another young admirer out of the crowd, as McAvoy and Griswold, with far deeper smiles, head off to a better life.

Furthermore, as a result of all of this, Griswold’s business booms, with Shelton tipping a hat to the sports psychiatry industry that’s commonplace today.

Can you think of a modern romantic comedy with a much better final act? I’m not sure I can. Well, When Harry Met Sally, but that was late ’80s. That’s modern-ish, not modern.

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“When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment or the moment defines you.”

The genius of Ron Shelton at his best is that he writes and directs sports films that require no love or interest in the sport to work. Just as when Paul Giamatti describes mournfully a bottle of wine to Virginia Madsen in Alexander Payne’s wonderful Sideways, and gets his message across subtlety whether you’re a wine addict or not, Shelton uses the cover of sport to get to the guts of human beings. Both he and Kevin Costner also seem to bring the best out of each other.

It’s not that Ron Shelton’s script needs to, or does, layer dialogue particularly deeply. But when Costner talks about the perfect golf shot, the fact that he has no fixed finishing position, his choice of the ‘big dog’ over the safe club, it’s clear what’s being got at. That Griswold buys herself all the equipment she can to help her with her golf also tells its own story.

Away from Costner and Russo, there are treats elsewhere in the supporting cast. Notwithstanding real life golfers being asked to deliver lines which – let’s be charitable – they don’t put across wonderfully well, I do love Cheech Marin’s role as McAvoy’s long-suffering caddy Romeo, who quits and keeps coming back, and gets a nice ending of his own to the film with Linda Hart’s Doreen.

But it’s Johnson who’s clearly having a ball. There’s something wholly convincing about his rivalry with McAvoy, and his desire to put him in his place. Shelton stages two excellent moments to put this across. The first is a simple challenge to hit a ball as far as possible, where McAvoy just goes for it and Simms outthinks him, getting a free, shitty car in the process. The second is the staged sequence where McAvoy has to hit a golf ball through a bar and make a pelican fly away.

Shelton, throughout, adds a slight tension to these scenes without breaking the easy tone of the film. And when it comes to the US Open at the end, it’s really quite gripping. That’s from me, a non-golfer.

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Johnson is in the middle of the only scene in the whole film that feels just a little contrived to me, where he refuses to give an autograph in a pissy fit that just happens to be witnessed by Griswold. This is the bit where their relationship basically ends (and, fact fans, it features Kevin Costner’s parents as the two fans trying to get an autograph for their son. Kevin Costner’s son, as it happens), and it’s the only part that feels like it’s bowing to the economical storytelling sometimes demanded by the romantic comedy genre.

But it’s one very slight misstep in a romcom that manages to be both romantic, and comedic, without ever wanting to make you throw up. For Tin Cup, ultimately, is a film for grown-ups about grown-ups, and not in a pretentious way. Bursting with great performances, it’s a film with its own tempo, whose resistance of anything gimmicky lends it a surprisingly timeless feel on rewatching.

It was the first film Costner made post-Waterworld, and it would be fair to say he chose very wisely indeed.