Match-play golf mixes with evil gamblers and the Christian ethics of Middle America in “The Squeeze,” a heavy-handed morality play supported by beautifully shot footage on the links and well-cast con men. But the narrative by debuting writer-director Terry Jastrow — who also produces along with wife Anne Archer — is so handicapped by prosaic dialogue and the earnest young couple at its core that the ingenious “based on actual events” twist at the end feels more like an impossible lie. Distributor Arc Entertainment has a library targeted to faith-based audiences — an important second shot, since theatrical returns from nonbelievers may be subpar.
Golf prodigy Augie Baccus (“Friday Night Lights’ ” Jeremy Sumpter) has big plans. But after easily winning a local tournament, he’s approached by a high roller named Riverboat (Christopher McDonald) and his moll, Jessie (the ingratiating Katherine LaNasa), who try to convince him to join forces with them in hustling matches against other gamblers and their ringers. Despite repeated warnings from his cute, big-hearted girlfriend, Natalie, that Riverboat is evil (the point driven home when we first meet him taking money out of a church collection plate), Augie is soon enough swung to the dark side.
But Augie has extenuating circumstances for so easily abandoning his dreams: He’s bravely run his alcoholic, abusive father out of the house, and now someone has to support mom and the kid sister he rescued from a dumpster (some events seem less actual than others). Along the way, there are trick shots a la “Tin Cup,” anarchic match rules aimed at the “Caddyshack” crowd and further righteous protestations from Natalie, who at times seems like a cartoon angel sitting on Augie’s shoulder. Indeed, the film’s Christian themes feel overwrought, particularly in service of a sports caper movie (though there’s a certain Unitarianism of spirit at play in the fact that the film’s Scientologist helmer has his characters at one point debating scripture).
Taking a step up in competition, Augie finds himself in Las Vegas, matched by Riverboat against the amateur champion backed by Jimmy Diamonds (Michael Nouri), a humorless hoodlum on a losing streak who threatens to kill Augie if he doesn’t throw the match. But Riverboat makes a similar threat if Augie fails to win, setting up the Gordian-knot finale.
Jastrow is a longtime helmer of PGA events, and as expert at choosing just the right camera angle for his shots on the course as he is apparently confounded over fashioning believable dialogue or characters.
In a picture that includes only one-dimensional roles, the old pros come off best, with McDonald, thankfully onscreen frequently, as a particularly oily Mr. Scratch. A startlingly lit mirror shot, as the ostensible terms of the final deal are going down in a back room in Vegas, drives home the metaphor with maximum effect and minimum subtlety. Nouri is convincing as the blunt Jimmy, and LaNasa a comic highlight as Jessie. But Sumpter, in the lead, appears more sure of himself golfing than emoting, and Murray, while game for her character’s hairpin turns — Natalie is dead-set against Augie playing for Riverboat, but apparently quite comfortable serving as his caddy — too frequently winds up in the tall grass of implausibility.
Cinematographer Taron Lexton delivers pro-tour-style visuals on courses in North Carolina and at the Wynn Las Vegas, where the wife of former golfer Keith Flatt, the man on whom the film is based, is the top sales and marketing exec. (The movie drops in the Wynn logo — and others — frequently enough to have a product-placement credit.) The bluesy soundtrack is appropriately ominous. Editing is variable: A flash-forward scene at the start feels misplaced and overwrought, and the ending, smart but unearned, lingers for a few beats too long.