Friday, September 2, 2011

Seven Days in Utopia: In the rough

Seven Days in Utopia (2011) • View trailer for Seven Days in Utopia
Three stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Although cleverly marketed to resemble a "spirit of the game" golf drama — such as, say, The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Greatest Game Ever PlayedSeven Days in Utopia actually is concerned with an entirely different sort of spirit.

The heavenly spirit, to be precise.
Figuring that he has nothing to lose, disenchanted golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas
Black, left) agrees to a rather unorthodox, weeklong "program" suggested by
one-time pro Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall). The apparent goal: to help Luke
find his game. The actual goal: to help Luke find something much deeper.

Director Matt Russell's earnest little film is a Christian drama, which is to be distinguished from a drama with Christian characters. Christian dramas have only one purpose: not to entertain, but to proselytize. In fairness, Russell's film does this better — by which I mean, less stridently — than most, but that's not saying much.

Although faith-based movies have been a cinematic subgenre pretty much from day one, they've rarely played in mainstream theaters, and with good reason; while usually well-meaning, most have been contrived, poorly scripted and badly acted. As a result, they've remained a mostly fringe experience, much the way exploitative 1960s "drive-in movies" rarely escaped their rural origins.

But faith-based movies have been on the rise during the past decade, driven in part by a quite reasonable desire to provide a family-friendly alternative to Hollywood's increasingly vulgar, violent fare. Writer/director Alex Kendrick, a steady player in the Christian cinema market, has improved his game since debuting with 2003's Flywheel; he scored some respectable mainstream attention with 2008's Fireproof ... in part because of star Kirk Cameron's name visibility. (The film itself, sadly, was simply too shamelessly solemn and sincere to be taken seriously.)

Kendrick's next entry, Courageous, is scheduled to debut Sept. 30; perhaps it, too, will be an improvement on its predecessors.

Meanwhile, we have Seven Days in Utopia, the study of young golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas Black), who is at an emotional crossroads after having choked during his debut on the pro circuit. The result: a very public meltdown and an angry drive through the wide open spaces of Texas, until Luke is faced with two road signs at a T-intersection. He makes the seemingly random choice to head into the tiny town of Utopia, population 373, and his life changes forever.

Ah, but is the choice random? Subtlety isn't one of this film's strong suits, and the script — adapted from David L. Cook's clandestinely evangelical Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia — certainly wears its virtuous heart on its sleeve. Even at his most frustrated, Luke never loses his good manners; he's unfailingly polite to all the kind folks he meets in Utopia, as they are to him.

Luke is immediately embraced by weather-beaten Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall), a retired pro golfer who quit "the circuit" but couldn't give up the game itself; he therefore built his own driving range in the middle of a cattle field. Crawford can tell that Luke's got game; the younger man simply can't find it.

Give me seven days, the ol' coot tells our young protagonist, and I'll get you turned around.

What follows feels like an amusing riff on mentor/protégé relationships from The Karate Kid to Star Wars, with Crawford doing his best to help Luke find The Force. Becoming "better at golf" therefore involves fly-fishing, landscape painting and even piloting a small airplane. And danged if Luke isn't a natural at every one of these apparently new experiences.

Particularly the fly-fishing. Somehow, Luke never tangles his line. Amazing.

Luke also catches the eye of the purtiest gal in town, Maggie (Sarah Jayne Jensen). Alas, a local rodeo rider (Brian Geraghty) is sweet on Maggie, which suggests trouble ahead ... but it'll never turn serious enough to threaten this film's G-rating.

In fairness, Russell has a deft, careful hand with his film's numerous intimate moments, whether between Luke and Crawford, or Luke and Maggie. Jensen is radiantly effervescent in a sparkling, wholesome way that makes Maggie's piety genuinely touching; perhaps better than any other actor here, she achieves sincerity without becoming overwrought.

It's irritating, however, to be told that Maggie is something of a horse whisperer, yet never see any evidence of this. That's just sloppy scripting.

Duvall, always a laconic joy, plays Crawford as a grizzled veteran of life who always seems amused by some private joke. But he's never condescending, nor does he make sport of the story's sillier aspects; Crawford genuinely believes in the spiritual lessons to be achieved through fly-fishing and painting, and — as a result — Duvall manages to sell us, as well. Usually.

And Duvall has an easy, laid-back authenticity at other moments, as well: notably when he comforts Maggie and her mother, still grieving the loss of the father/husband taken by cancer, two years earlier.

Black navigates his character's various mood swings reasonably well, although he's better at quieter moments; Luke's more ostentatious behavior — such as his meltdown on the links — feels forced and looks like "acting."

I should mention that Duvall and Black recently teamed in 2009's thoroughly charming Get Low, which in my mind does a much better job — than this film — of depicting a man who tries to work past his inner demons.

Joseph Lyle Taylor is wholly persuasive as Luke's overbearing father, who — we observe in several flashbacks — taught golf to his son during ever waking moment of the boy's life, even on Easter Sundays. (Ahem.) Kathy Baker displays her usual casual charm as the manager of the cheerfully rustic motel where Luke stays for the week.

Frankly, I'm impressed. For a first-time director — whose previous film experience has been limited to being part of the special-effects teams for Charlotte's Web and Night at the Museum, among others — Russell seems quite comfortable with his many new responsibilities.

On the other hand...

Russell relies far too heavily on Duvall's voice-over narration, which gets particularly clumsy when it refers to Luke in the third person: the point at which "narration" turns into "condescending sermon." Russell also overuses the aforementioned flashbacks: the hallmark of an inexperienced director who worries that we may have forgotten stuff we watched only half an hour earlier.

And while I'm impressed by the relative subtlety of the story's first and second acts — with respect to the religious subtext — the message gets slopped on with a trowel during the final exchange between Luke and Crawford. This climactic scene calls for a wealth of emotions that Black simply cannot pull off, and even the always dependable Duvall has trouble selling the lines here.

This is the point at which patient mainstream viewers, perhaps having tolerated the "message" up to this point, will snicker, roll their eyes and check out. It's also the point at which Russell stops making a movie and suddenly starts preaching, which is precisely the problem with every faith-based "drama" I've ever seen. Inevitably, the usual understanding between filmmaker and viewer is severed, to be replaced by a lecture delivered from teacher to student.

On a milder note, the tension between Luke and his father — obviously years in the making, and deeply rooted — is wafted aside toward the end, with nary a word of reproach from either man. Uh-huh. That's likely.

I'm also quite disturbed — and disappointed — by the unvaryingly white, paternalistic atmosphere of this "utopia," where people of color aren't to be seen anywhere, and women exist solely to cook delicious meals and be comforted by men. This is a Leave It to Beaver community writ large and spiritual: a whitebread fantasy that frankly doesn't deserve its core Christian message.

And while I'll give all concerned credit for a cleverly ambiguous final scene — which neatly plays to the moral of better assessing what's truly important in life — the subsequent tease to a related Web site is inexcusable. It turns the movie into little more than a "trick" designed to lure viewers to a forum whose sole purpose is evangelical conversion.

And that, after some fine work by Duvall, Black and Jensen, truly is disappointing.

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