It’s always a risk breaking down one of your favorite movies. Especially one that you know is crowd popular but not critic popular; you might see flaws you previously looked past or didn’t notice. Some ratings and reviews for Tin Cup (1996) might lead you to believe this golf-pun riddled spectacle should be left buried in the bunker in which it first found itself on first release. And while I accepted the risk in deciding to do this latest post, I’m happy to report I still love it just as much as before. Let’s take a look now at the attributes of the movie that helps it get up and down to find itself on the short list of top sports movies – or at least top golf films – for most sports fans and movie lovers.
If you are reading a blog post on a 22-year old movie, chances are you’ve seen it. But for the small percentage of you that haven’t, the IMDB synopsis says it simply, “[a] washed up golf pro working at a driving range tries to qualify for the US Open in order to win the heart of his successful rival’s girlfriend.” In reading that you may jump immediately to an incorrect guess about how it all ends – and that’s one of the best aspects of this film, but we’ll get to that later.
Given this is an older movie, let’s start with the timelessness of this movie. The 1996 review from Janet Malsin of the New York Times captured, it’s “bright, stylish, ridiculously alluring.” While it’s actually the styles in the film which age it, the context and topics of the movie could be in just about any time period. From a classic love triangle to coming to terms with the hard to swallow implications of our personality – these universal human problems translate not just over time but generations and cultures.
Tin Cup may be timeless but not because it’s predictable. As Ebert put, it is “a formula sports comedy with a lot of non-formula human comedy.” Tin Cup centers around a different kind of sports hero – Roy, who Malsin says has “a talent for enjoying failure in style.” Besides incredibly good rounds of golf played with garden tools or just a seven iron, Roy has something else that we all want – a set of loveable friends and the happy banter that comes from being together. Friends that San Francisco Examiner Critic noted they made believable.
The secondary characters give the main story nice support without stealing away too much time and attention. As Ebert also said, “Shelton’s gift is to take the main lines of the story, which are fairly routine, and add side stories that make the movie worth seeing.” And be clear, the casting of these characters is bang on, even if a contributing factor to the cost of making it.
Start to finish, the human nature of the characters is clear. The opening scene establishes straight away that we aren’t always what we’d like to be. While Roy shares a riddle with his cronies that is solved by breaking gender biased assumptions, he demonstrates that exact bias at the end of the scene. (Side note, while this is comically presented, I can tell you that this irony is more common in the real world than we’d like to think.)
The dialogue is clever and entertaining. Malison and Ebert noted it as “flippant, skillful banter” and “smart and fresh,” respectively. The playful ping-pong nature is one I love from various writers. One of my favorite exchanges is the first golf lesson. What I’m not showing here is the fun back-and-forth between teacher and student and the peanut gallery watching from the shop. Molly is confident in her research but not of her results of applying it.
I’m sure there are excesses and repetitions here, but I believe in the gathering of knowledge and I figured, well, there must be some truths about the golf swing illustrated by these devices — and that you’d help me sort through it.
And Roy does start to evaluate what he’s starting with, and Molly shows her frustration, cursing, which Roy tries to disarm:
‘Fuck…’ ‘Shit…’ these are highly technical golf terms
and you’re using them on your first lesson — this is promising.
Then there are the exchanges with Doreen, like the first one to settle a debt, where Roy has offered the deed to his driving range which he has dangled as giving her higher stature in the community, something every strip club owner may be looking for:
What are your labor costs?
(off no response from Tin Cup)
Payroll, Roy. What do you pay your help?
Let’s see… the tractor kid gets five bucks an hour. Romeo, he gets ten cash
What do you pay yourself?
Doreen nods in a way Tin Cup finds threatening.
To hit golf balls all day… when you’re not breaking for beers or corn dogs or to gather the guys and lay bets on which crow flies off the fence next.
You’re referring to my managerial salary?
I’m referring to every nickel you snatch out of the till and every bag of beer nuts you lift from the rack, is what I’m referring to.
Let’s say it’s worth ten – you still owe me two.
And the loaded exchange when Roy is trying to get Romeo back as his caddy:
You didn’t fall in love with Earl to be your caddie?
He was a wheezing heart attack waiting to happen — cost me three strokes a side…
I carried my bag the last four holes. I love ol’ Earl but I need you.
You don’t love me?
I love you, too, God damn it!
As much as Earl?
I don’t know! Yes, yes, as much as Earl — (beat)
More than Earl!
Am I special?
If you can remove the sexual connotations
and overlay a golf theme, Romeo — I am your Juliet.
One common critiques of the film is the high number of golf puns all throughout, but these are most notably crimes committed by Roy (but totally in character).
I honestly believe that Tin Cup is by and large successful because the golf feels authentic, the events and coverage seem real. It’s relatable to anyone who has picked up a club, even though Roy is a golf pro. We’ve been frustrated, gotten the shanks and all have shots we knew we could have (should have) made. Shelton wrote the script with his golf buddy. They centered around an actual event and utilized actual pro-golf . PGA’s own coverage includes a quote from Phincie that “[i]t’s a hole that has stood the test of time, [it’s] a hard hole.” The club location of the filming has also embraced their role and enable fans to as well –
“We have a marble plaque that marks the spot where Roy McAvoy hit the miraculous shot in the movie,” Martin said. “Guys like to take bets and drop a ball from the spot to take their shot at glory. There are a lot of war stories about hole No. 4, especially after golf tournaments. The round/score has been lost on No. 4 many times for players.”
Shulgasser of the SF Examiner also accredits these choices to the film’s success.
Somewhere in one of my seminars or books (maybe more than one), the advice to give people what they want in a way they don’t expect it, rings true but can be really hard to do. This is one film that shows how. Malsin applauds it – “Setting out on a “Rocky” trajectory toward the triumph of a little guy from nowhere, Tin Cup actually arrives at a more interesting destination.” Ebert wrote, it’s got an “ending, which flies in the face of convention and is therefore all the more satisfactory.” This makes it not just surprising, but more realistic and relatable. It’s true – and while not a predictable finish for the genre, it’s perfect for Roy. The arc for him isn’t to overcome and stop going for it, but to accept and appreciate that he goes for it. And what a beautiful lesson for many of us – acceptance and appreciation.
What makes Tin Cup a timeless success and sports favorite include traditional aspects – charm, characters, dialogue, and realism. But the delightful surprise in how we love the anti-hero and his ability to win the big moment in a completely nontraditional way ensures this will remain a favorite for so many.