Friday, September 2, 2011

Seven Days in Utopia

Review by Matthew Finley

Figuring that, next to crime scene investigators, sports fans are probably the most vitriolic demographic when it comes to Hollywood’s careless, spectacle-minded portrayals of their passions, I made sure to have a golf lover in tow when I went to see first-time director Matt Russell’s inspirational golf drama SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA. The golfing, I was assured by my companion, is fine. Unfortunately, the inspiration and the drama are not handled half as reverently.

I may not know golf, but I do know slasher films, which means I also know better than to nitpick the narrative redundancies committed by a new entry into a tried-and-true sub-genre. So when aspiring golf superstar Luke Chisolm (Black) melts down at the last hole of a crucial game (Match? Round? I’m serious… I know nothing about golf), storms off, and wrecks his car in a just-east-of-bumblesnort Texas hamlet called Utopia, I can only smile when the hard-nosed rancher (Robert Duvall) who gallops up to help the dazed twenty-something turns out to be a disgraced former golf pro who’s only too willing to tuck the quick-tempered chick beneath his grizzled-but-wise, formerly alcoholic wing.

When the local cowpokes don’t cotton to the soft-handed city boy, I nod in cliché-embracing agreement. When the button-cute horse whisperer (actress/singer Sarah Jayne Jensen) shares her life story under a clear night sky full of stars, I grin and shrug. When Duvall’s rancher character Johnny Crawford takes the flight-reluctant golfer up in a single-engine plane, turns off the engine, and tells him to feel it out and land the plane, I was like, “Wait… what?!”

Yeah. Crash-landing a single-engine plane is like golf. Also like golf, according to Crawford’s eccentric tutelage: fly fishing, painting, and throwing metal washers into a can. Of course, I’m being a bit facetious. Golf (I'm told) is a game of intense concentration, requiring an even temper, a clear mind and sustained physical and mental focus. Crawford’s down-home country Zen is meant to hone Chisolm’s mind and put him in touch with, well, God.

This film approaches both golf, and faith, from a Christian perspective. And I gotta say, religious or not, the movie is a legitimately wholesome bit of family entertainment that forgoes all the jaded pop culture references, Top 40 mash-ups, and scatological pandering of its contemporaries. Outside of a few faith-specific scenes, the values – family, friends, love - extolled by Johnny Crawford are all globally applicable, nondenominational winners with which almost anyone ought to be cool. (That is to say: parents, even if your family are strict goat-gutting Satanists, the 10 minutes of subdued Christian proselytizing in this film are measurably less intrusive than the 90-plus minutes of ear-splitting capitalist regurgitations that constitute SMURFS.)

Story-wise, though, Chisolm’s journey to faith never quite clicks. The film’s well-intentioned G-rated tendencies ensure that Luke is so sympathetic, even from the beginning - when his tantrum is immediately justified by a slew of flashbacks featuring a cartoonishly overbearing father - that his struggle toward inner peace seems all too achievable, and, worse for a visual storytelling medium, all too internalized. Even more odd is the climax of the film, in which the writers seem to realize that fact, and create a confusingly intense one-on-one golf rivalry practically out of thin air.

Most frustrating, though, is Crawford’s insistence that oneness with faith – and with god – can only truly be obtained through the realization that winning is irrelevant. The journey is its own reward, it’s how you play not if you win, etc. And in a broad sense, all of those sayings and platitudes are true – hold up a single session (Quarter? Period?) of golf against the aforementioned values of family, friends and love, and it’d be stupid to take the under-par score along with a life of gravy-stained suicidal loneliness. Even assuming that in reality, that is the choice - winning or inner serenity - Chisolm is a professional golfer. It seems unfair to suggest that his faith should come at the expense of a healthy spirit of competition - a central aspect of his livelihood.

I still don’t know much about golf, but my movie going companion is an avid fan, and, for what it's worth, a practicing Presbyterian. Here’s what he had to say: “Plenty of golfers are good Christians, and all of them would kill to play in a championship. It’s their job, and they’re good at it. So, yeah, winning matters.” (2 out 4 stars)

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