Seven Days in Utopia: Golf Movie, Starring Oscar Winners Robert Duvall and Melissa Leo

Seven Days in Utopia is the first big golf movie in years, but it bears no relation to popular golf comedies like “Caddyshack” (1980) or “Happy Gilmore” (1996).

This is serious golf, golf as a spiritual practice, in a movie more in tune with “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000)—but with no “magical” blacks in sight and with very explicit Christian message.

According to this film, there are more important things in life than golf: reading the Good Book, attending church, believing in God’s plan. The film’s mantra, as put forth by golf-guru-with-a-murky-past Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall) is “see it, feel it, trust it.” This is known as STF, the acronym Johnny scrawls on his golf balls for good measure.

Based on the 2009 bestseller “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia,” this film, a disappointing debut from director Matt Russell, builds from a classic father–son conflict.

The young golfer Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) has a televised meltdown on his dad (Joseph Lyle Taylor). Dad, we learn from a series of flashbacks, has pushed Luke way too hard since childhood toward golf greatness.  Spending many Sundays at the driving range with his father while his mother and sister went off to church was especially traumatizing for Luke as a boy.

Luke speeds off from his meltdown and winds up stranded in Utopia, Texas, population 375. The place is presided over by patriarch Johnny. Despite the fact that Hispanics now make up 37 percent of the Texas population, there are non-white people in Utopia, and everyone goes to the same church.

Utopia is meant to be a reassuring small town, but many viewers may find it more along the lines of “The Village” (2004) or “The Wicker Man” movies.

Johnny, who turns out to be an ex-pro golfer, convinces Luke to hang around for a week and train under him. The young man quickly accepts Johnny as a new father figure to replace his ole dad.

The master’s course of study turns out to be slightly unconventional: there is journaling, fly-fishing, painting, and piloting an airplane, among other things. But Jonny—often authoring Yoda-like pronouncements such as “Don’t think, see!”—relates everything back to “staying in your game” as he drops more and more hints about the Bible and church life.

While the rapport between Johnny and Luke is cute—and Duvall is his usual winning self here, making even the deadest lines sing—the lessons are not as out-of-the-box as the filmmakers might imagine. The seven days in Utopia start to feel like a slog.

Luke’s odd encounter with a CGI bull at a town rodeo contributes to the sense that none of this is all that real.

Johnny finally lets Luke have it with some religious hard sell, and Luke has a “God is everywhere” meltdown, which, despite its inevitability in this film, feels sudden and ungrounded in its tearful intensity.

Cue a soaring tune by Christian rock band Third Day on being “born again,” and Luke takes his place among the faithful—literally everyone else in town, literally everyone awaiting his arrival in the church. Again, many viewers may find this somehow unsettling more than inspiring.

During his stay in Utopia, Luke also falls in love with a local cowgirl, Sarah (Deborah Ann Woll from TV’s “True Blood”), who is in training to become a horse whisperer. Their romance unfortunately falls victim to some of the weakest moments of this screenplay, which was written by a team of four. Luke asks Sarah, “Am I ever going to get to see you whisper to a horse?” She tells him that her dream is to “bring freedom to horses and, uh, the occasional stranger.”

Luke leaves Utopia with an arsenal of truisms tucked away in his heart like “God works in mysterious ways” and “There’s more to life than winning.” He rejoins the tour with a new, Zen-like calm and Jedi reflexes.

An overlong tournament sequence, not unlike watching golf on TV, ends the film with a cliffhanger and—in a move likely to frustrate—a website address to find out the story’s conclusion (and, presumably, more about the Christian faith).

“Seven Days in Utopia” is not insincere, but its out-and-out corniness will be hard for most audiences to take seriously. This film is clearly targeted at the niche market of true believers, which in the past has proved to have deep pockets—“The Passion of the Christ” (2004) made more than $600 million.

In addition to Duvall, some other fine actors are wasted in Utopia. Melissa Leo, in her first film after winning many awards, including the Supporting Actress Oscar, for “The Fighter” (2010), overdoes her small part. Excellent character actor Kathy Baker, as Johnny’s no-nonsense sister, does not get enough chance to build a role.

Cast

Johnny Crawford – Robert Duvall

Luke Chisholm – Lucas Black

Lily – Melissa Leo

Mabel – Kathy Baker

Sarah – Deborah Ann Woll

Martin Chisholm – Joseph Lyle Taylor

Credits

A Utopia Pictures release.

Directed by Matt Russell.

Written by David Cook, Rob Levine, Matt Russell, and Sandra Thrift.

Produced by Jason Michael Berman and Mark G. Mathis.

Cinematography, M. David Mullen.

Editing, Robert Kamatsu.

Original Music, Klaus Badelt and Christopher Carmichael.

Running time: 99 minutes.