An otherwise cornball, inspirational tale about finding God through golf, Seven Days in Utopia must be given full credit for coming up with something new in movies: To learn what happens at the end, you’ve got to go online. After carefully building up to a climactic scene in which the underdog hero must sink a long putt to win a sudden-death playoff, the camera looks away, narration intones to the effect that the protagonist now has a higher calling so it doesn’t matter much in the big picture whether he won or not and, if you actually want to know who came out on top, you must go to www.didhemaketheputt.com. This homemade, whole milk, finger-lickin’-good, G-rated piece of American cheese isn’t the sort of thing most urban viewers are accustomed to consuming but, if Visio Entertainment knows how to reach down-home Christian audiences, Utopia will find open arms across a wide swath of the Bible Belt and through the South.
Based on David Cook‘s best-selling 2009 novel “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia,” which has been particularly popular among struggling athletes, the spiritually oriented film also has the wit to gently kid the idea that God might take a personal interest the outcome of sporting events, a belief that seems quite common among Southern school football teams and even in the NFL. Obvious in theme and intent and dedicated to hitting every point right on the head, this independent production boasts a very fine fine cast and most certainly possesses the sincerity of its convictions in the existence of a higher meaning to life than sport scores and financial rewards.
“How can a game have such an effect on a man’s soul?” Robert Duvall‘s wise old guy queries in voice-over both at the beginning and the end, just before we see young Texas golfer Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) experience a total meltdown during a tournament. He’s so distraught after this potential career-crusher that he crashes his car through a fence. But the fence’s owner, rancher Johnny Crawford (Duvall), far from minding, takes the lad in and, suggesting that it might change his life, invites him to be his guest for seven days in the tiny town of Utopia.
And Utopia it quickly seems to be. Ensconced in a deluxe cabin, waited on hand-and-foot by the lady of the house (Kathy Baker) and immediately admired up and down by the lovely red-haired waitress (Deborah Ann Woll) at the picture-perfect town cafe, Luke couldn’t be blamed for thinking he might have died and gone to heaven. Like some zen master, former golfer Johnny, who has his own private course, uses unorthodox means to get Luke to relearn the sport from square one, from finding a new grip through inner conviction to discovering how to snatch victory from certain defeat by taking Luke up in a small plane, cutting out the motor and having him figure out how to glide to safety.
Under Johnny’s tutelage, it’s all as easy as pie; in one short week, Luke not only gets his game back but is inspired by example to quit drinking and is shown the way to the Lord in the bargain. And, oh yes, the waitress is learning to be a horse whisperer, so material for a sequel is there if warranted.
Lessons learned, Luke enters the Texas Open and stuns the golfing world by tying the top player (real-life pro K.J. Choi), prompting the playoff.
Black looks pretty good swinging the clubs and, once he shakes off Luke’s residual bitterness, opens his characterization up with humor and ready accessibility. Duvall can play an avuncular cowboy sage in his sleep, but there’s truly no one on Earth you’d rather see dishing out homespun aphorisms, so it’s pointless to resist the pleasure of watching him do what he can do better than anyone else. Baker and Melissa Leo, as the waitress’ mom, are not asked to exhibit a fraction of their talent, but they further class the joint up.
Matthew Dean Russell, a veteran visual effects hand, overshoots, overcuts and simply tries to hard, especially in the beginning. But his evident affinity for the material gradually overcomes the programmatic point-making of the storytelling (four writers are credited on the script), allowing the film to eventually find its way and retain its purity of intent.
Production: Utopia Films
Cast: Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, Melissa Leo, Deborah Ann Woll, Brian Geraghty, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Jerry Ferrara, K.J. Choi, Kathy Baker
Director: Matthew Dean Russell
Screenwriters: David L. Cook, Rob Levine, Matthew Dean Russell, Sandra Thrift, based on the novel “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia” by David L. Cook
Producers: Mark G. Mathis, Jason Michael Berman
Executive producers: David L. Cook, Jess Stainbrook, Joseph Coors Jr., Ray C. Davis, Robert A. Innamorati, Rick Jackson, Phil Myers, Ken Herfurth, Lucas Black, Robert Carliner, Mary Vernieu, Lou Waters
Director of photography: M. David Mullen
Production designer: Clark Hunter
Costume designers: Molly Maginnis, Amy Maner
Editor: Robert Komatsu
Music: Klaus Badelt with Christopher Carmichael
Rated G, running time 99 minutes