Robert Duvall riding on a horse is one of the most satisfying images in all of cinema, and “Seven Days in Utopia” provides that sight on several occasions. Those moments represent the film’s high points, however; the rest of the film provides little more than a pleasantly passable Christian sports parable delivered as a sort of Texan golfer’s version of “The Karate Kid.” Pic, based on a bestselling novel by David L. Cook (one of four screenwriters credited), should go over well with the book’s fans and church groups, which could well represent a decent-sized homevid audience.
Lucas Black plays burgeoning pro-golfer Luke Chisholm, and while his golf swing looks great, and he’s perfect at projecting the uncomplicated external bonhomie of so many rural Southern residents, he fails to convey much character beneath it. This is a problem, as the pic requires Chisholm to portray intense inner struggle.
The film opens with Chisholm in a state of existential and Oedipal anguish, having just blown a lead in a golf tournament by melting down on the final hole, causing his caddie/domineering father (Joseph Lyle-Taylor) to walk away in disgust. Furious and speeding aimlessly through the tiny town of Utopia, Texas (pop. 375), he is forced off the road by a stray cow, crashing through the fence of a ranch but quickly attended to by owner Johnny Crawford (Duvall, entering on horseback).
With his car totaled, Chisholm is forced to shack up in Utopia for the night. Crawford introduces him around town, and he forges an instant connection with moony waitress Sarah (Deborah Ann Woll), as well as an instant, mutual hostility toward an aspiring rodeo star (Brian Geraghty, channeling the same mixture of loud-mouthed machismo and insecurity that he brought to “The Hurt Locker”). Afterward, Crawford proposes that Chisholm stick around for seven days, promising to improve his golf game.
Pic was actually shot in the scenic Texan burg, which the film portrays as something out of a Merle Haggard song — a nice little place for squares to have a ball. In fact, the laid-back sense of small-town warmth and strength of the supporting cast (which includes Melissa Leo and Kathy Baker) make the film much more watchable than it otherwise would be.
Crawford’s lessons are Miyagi-like in their ostensible lack of connection to golf (i.e., painting, airplane-flying, fly-fishing), but they put the wayward linksman back on track, as well as providing a nice bedrock for the old sage to plant a Bible upon his pupil.
Makers of explicitly Christian films often have a difficult time presenting spiritual conversions and religious themes without making the whole film a mere coat rack on which to hang those subjects, but Russell has the inverse problem — though the Christian plotpoints are hardly subtle (film opens by quoting Isaiah 30:21), the protagonist’s relationship with God falls roughly on the level of his relationship with the local girl: a chemistry-free subplot that often feels shoehorned in.
Technical specs are pro, although Russell occasionally ventures into some Aronofsky-esque rapid cutting ill-suited to the lackadaisical mood. Climactic sequence involves some well-paced, well-shot golf action (featuring Golf Channel commentators and real-life pros like Rickie Fowler and K.J. Choi), though the decision to reroute viewers to a website to learn the outcome of the final match is curious indeed.