Hardballs

Tin Cup

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The Fan

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           SO, ¿QUIÉN ES más macho? Kevin Costner or Don Johnson? Robert De Niro or Wesley Snipes? In each case, it's a close call. Tin Cup and The Fan, both obsessed with competition and the fragile male ego, have enough testosterone between them to fuel an entire week of Hollywood product. To varying degrees, these movies pose a question that Rene Russo's Dr. Molly Griswold makes explicit in Tin Cup: "Why do men insist on measuring their dicks?" They also consider whether men can or cannot be "fixed"--that is, cured of their urge to challenge and compete, win or kill. No less than westerns or action blockbusters, jock films like these are perfect vehicles to explore such issues. But what differentiates the two movies is the extent to which they're conscious of what the jock genre is really about. Put another way, one is able to connect with the head as well as the balls.

           With Tin Cup, co-writer/director Ron Shelton reconfirms his status as the Sam Peckinpah of jock cinema. From Bull Durham to White Men Can't Jump and Cobb, his movies analyze and philosophize the sportsman's mythic quest for manhood. That his characters speak eloquently about their struggle makes the films contemplative rather than formulaic; judgments of victory are invariably open to interpretation. Thus, Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy (Costner) is a vaguely heroic sort of loser, an overdetermined and underachieving former golf star who lives in a trailer on a dilapidated West Texas driving range, gambling with friends like Romeo (Cheech Marin) and trading the occasional golf lesson for six-pack money. Tin Cup is a far gentler version of Shelton's Ty Cobb, but he's similarly addicted to proving that "greatness courts failure." On and off the course, he can never bring himself to "lay up" with a safe shot. He'd much rather fail spectacularly--devote 10 strokes to making a single hole-in-one, say--than win conservatively. The movie pivots on whether this distinctly male trait is a character flaw.

           Part of what's Peckinpah-esque about this is how Tin Cup's untamed approach to success is posited against the modern capitalist world, represented by smarmy player David Simms (Johnson), a "soulless robot" accordingly rewarded with money, fame, and Molly--most valuable of all in the film's terms. After Tin Cup meets and falls for this playful psychotherapist, he decides to win the U.S. open and her hand, in that order, to fulfill his "mythic destiny." Molly's own challenge is out of His Girl Friday: She's torn between the soulless breadwinner and the arrogant, endearing pain in the ass to whom she gives full-time therapy. Like Hawks or Sturges, Shelton is a pro at allowing his characters to hold court with ridiculous verbosity; his rhythmic dialogue is the essence of screwball, pitching psycho-philosophy and the double entendre with such speed as to confuse even the players. "Were you bein' literal or was that some Freudian type o' deal?" Tin Cup asks Molly at one point. Why, both, of course.

           Tin Cup's relationship to genre is classic, right down to the old-fashioned way in which Molly is turned from doctor to groupie, her professionalism put to the service of mothering an overgrown boy who won't be cured. It would probably be too charitable to read this as a critique of women's roles within sporting circles, although Tin Cup's sportsmanship in the final scene is clearly meant to be contested. Without giving it away, Shelton's ending is downright subversive by jock-movie standards, refusing to draw clean lines between egoism and integrity, determination and stubbornness, confidence and despair, winning and losing. True, Tin Cup does award the man who dares not to play the percentages. (I'd guess Shelton, for his part, must loathe test screenings.) But is Tin Cup's Cobb-like way of "playing" necessarily heroic or without consequences? You make the call.

           Certainly, the title character of The Fan (De Niro) would cheer Tin Cup's immodest, make-a-point showmanship. The world is changing on him, too. A salesman of knives and other hunting supplies (subtle, huh?), De Niro's Gil Renard discovers that the retail biz is becoming impersonally corporate in the '90s, and that divorced fathers like himself are expected to be polite rather than volatile. And what does it mean that Gil is nearly the only white male in The Fan? Before proceeding to terrorize the Giants' new $40-million centerfielder (Snipes) and his young son, Gil accuses the player of being ungrateful--presumably for having a paying job that should belong to him.

           Like Falling Down, The Fan authenticates white male rage against a perceived loss of privilege--although it's too gutless to admit it. (The movie fails to acknowledge race even once, even as it ruthlessly exploits the casting and the premise.) As for De Niro's performance, this sort of psycho role stopped resembling self-parody years ago; now, it's just pathetic. And as for director Tony Scott, he appears to have seen Seven, enjoyed it, and, like a fan, set out to emulate its style by employing an abrasive soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails remixes for the "suspenseful" parts, and then adding some flashy sadism all his own. This Hollywood player should feel lucky to still be in the game.

 
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