Sports comedies follow the same premise
The basics of sports comedy are easy: Select a game, choose up sides — shabby but virtuous losers facing smug, well-heeled winners — and arrange a showdown, some 100-to-1 shot at personal redemption, for the finale. Add stock characters such as the cranky coach, the exasperated lover, wacko teammates, and a wisecracking sidekick, then shoot enough exciting action to carry the plot along. As film formula goes, it’s a Michael Jordan jumper.
The moviemaker who has done the most to raise the sports-movie bar is writer-director Ron Shelton, a college basketball star and a minor-league second baseman before he went Hollywood. The personal golf war of Tin Cup, the farm-team baseball of Bull Durham, the playground hoops of White Men Can’t Jump, and the backstage boxing machinations of The Great White Hype hit the bases, but Shelton digs beneath the turf, peopling his stories with insightful romantic philosophers who talk a better game than their self-defeating personalities allow them to play. The adult comedies he creates are less concerned with winning than with exploring relationships and the parallels between sports and life.
After writing screenplays for Under Fire and the football-centered The Best of Times, Shelton stepped up to the directorial plate and smacked a dinger with Bull Durham, a wry, sexy charmer starring Kevin Costner as catcher Crash Davis. Deep into a frustrating minor-league career, the veteran is handed the indignity of training ”Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a lunkheaded young fastballer bound for the majors. Their mutual disrespect is further undermined by the potent influence of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a team groupie who can see the value of raw power and rueful sensitivity. Teaching a lean lesson in patience and strategy, the film trots along at a lazy pace, scoring runs one base at a time. Since minor-league ball is a bit smaller than life, Bull Durham — which focuses on pitching and batting rather than defensive heroics — has the perfect scale for video.
So does Shelton’s other baseball movie, which stays well off the grass to fill the small screen with a single boisterously vivid character. Though framed as crypto-biographical drama, Cobb is bitingly funny in its exhausting depiction of the legendary Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) as a vicious cur dictating his autobiography to an appalled sportswriter (Robert Wuhl). Even when dealing with a genuine monster instead of a flawed fiction, Shelton seeks out the human spirit that drives people to prove themselves as athletes.
Given the director’s style of patterning films on the cadence of their sports, golf leaves something to be desired as a cinematic template. Watching Tin Cup is easier than sitting through 18 holes on TV, but it’s still plodding and ill-suited to macho pursuits of glory. This time, Costner plays Roy ”Tin Cup” McAvoy, a washout whose cocky ego is the wrong kind of handicap. Hoping to win Dr. Molly Griswold (the funny and radiant Rene Russo) away from his prosperous rival (Don Johnson), McAvoy enters the U.S. Open, where the story sinks into stock competition. Cheech Marin turns in a notable performance as McAvoy’s long-suffering caddy, and the script is packed with witty conversation, but it’s not enough to dig Tin Cup out of the sand.
Conversely, the energy of two-on-two street basketball overstimulates White Men Can’t Jump, which stars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson — who first played together in Wildcats, Goldie Hawn’s 1986 football comedy — as unlikely comrades in hoops. While it boasts dazzling fakeouts, unbelievable goals, and the conceptual guts to make racial stereotypes the hustlers’ tool against their unsuspecting foes, the film exhausts itself racing back and forth between endless sucker bets and trash-talking action.
Racial politics really take a dive in The Great White Hype, a daffy white-men-can’t-box farce Shelton cowrote with Tony Hendra for director Reginald Hudlin (House Party). Sleazy, bombastic fight promoter (an electrified Samuel L. Jackson) tries to cash in on public prejudice by drafting an offbeat Caucasian patsy (Peter Berg) to fight the arrogant champ (Damon Wayans). So where’s the joke? The script lands a few jabs, but there’s no percentage in poking fun at a business that’s too weird for satire.
The Great White Hype has a Shelton signature — an acoustic guitar — but none of the worldly wisdom that gives his best sports films their edge.
Tin Cup B-
Bull Durham A
White Men Can’t Jump C+
The Great White Hype C