Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2020)
Back in 1988, writer/director Ron Shelton and actor Kevin Costner paired for Bull Durham. Eight years later, they reunited for 1996’s Tin Cup, another mix of sports, romance and comedy.
Set in the remote West Texas town of Salome. Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy (Costner) once aspired to a career as a professional golfer. Alas, his inability to mitigate risk led to his failure in that regard, and he now operates a run-down driving range.
Into this setting steps Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), a therapist who comes for golf lessons. As he tutors Molly, Roy finds himself smitten.
Complication One: Molly already has a boyfriend. Complication Two: Molly dates David Simms (Don Johnson), a famous pro golfer who just happens to be Roy’s former college teammate.
Not one to back away from a challenge, Roy attempts to woo Molly anyway. This leads him to pursue his dormant pro career, as he believes a US Open victory will win her heart.
With Durham, Shelton made a sports movie that wasn’t about sports. Sure, baseball played a significant role, but character elements dominated.
That subverted the usual formula. We got no march toward a championship or toward personal glory, as the movie focused on its characters above all else.
Those factors made Durham an enduring classic. While it echoes the 1988 film to a more than minor degree and wants to recapture that glory, Cup loses touch with what created greatness in the earlier movie.
With Cup, Shelton wants to have it both ways. He pursues a love triangle not dissimilar to that of Durham but he also gives the lead a sporting goal absent in the prior flick.
This feels like a major miscalculation. As noted, part of what made Durham special came from its refusal to devolve into sports movie clichés.
In Cup, the characters feel secondary to the themes. Roy comes across less like a real personality and more like a stereotype who needs to learn and grow.
Except he doesn’t. The Roy at the film’s end doesn’t seem tremendously different than the one at the beginning, an odd choice that seems to be part of the movie’s point.
Not that Cup deprives Roy of all self-growth, but the finale seems strangely unable to reconcile the development that precedes it. I won’t spill spoilers, but these choices don’t really work, and they fall back into Shelton’s desire to have his cake and eat it, too.
As mentioned, Cup deviates from the Durham model in that it both shows Roy as an elite athlete and it demonstrates that he can perform at the highest levels. Durham’s Crash had talent but the film implies he was never quite good enough for the Majors, unlike super-skilled Roy, a golf artisan held back solely due to his inner demons.
Just like Rocky II felt the need to “fix” the ending of Rocky via its willingness to allow the protagonist to win the big fight, Cup seems determined to give viewers the Big Sports Moment that Shelton failed to deliver in Durham. Indeed, any and all character elements eventually take a backseat to the US Open, as that tournament dominates a massive chunk of the film’s running time.
The film’s very long running time, that is, as Cup clocks in at an ungainly 135 minutes. That’s almost half an hour past Durham and far past Cup’s breaking point, as it doesn’t contain enough good material to fill 90 minutes, much less two-hours 15.
At 108 minutes, Durham felt just right, though I could excuse Shelton if he padded the running time. The film develops such an enjoyable little universe that a Durham with more character bits and baseball would still entertain.
On the other hand, Cup makes the viewer feel that running time. A two-hour, 15-minute romantic comedy will tax the audience under most circumstances, but when the result comes with so little real charm or spark, it becomes even more of a slog.
On the positive side, I do respect that Shelton refused to simply remake Durham. Yes, the two share many similarities, and Roy often comes across like little more than a dumber, less self-aware Crash, but the films differ enough that I can’t accuse Shelton of massive self-plagiarism.
Unfortunately, Cup reminds us of Durham enough to make sure it never clicks. Roy offers a less charming Crash, and Costner/Russo turn into a less engaging couple than Crash/Annie.
Unlike the endearing Nuke, David turns into nothing more than a cartoon bad guy. He exists as a plot device and not a real character.
Honestly, that becomes an issue across the board, as none of Cup’s roles come with the endearing humanity found in Durham. Shelton built a plot structure – “hack golfer gets to the US Open” – and crammed everything else into the framework, even when it didn’t really fit.
All of this feels contrived and unsatisfying. In its quest to give us the Big Sports Moment, Tin Cup loses its humanity.