I saw “Seven Days in Utopia” last night. Mostly because I’ll watch anything with Robert Duval in it. I swear I’d pay to watch Robert Duval read from the phone book – maybe even from the New International Version of the Gospel of Mark. There’s an old joke about small towns in Texas: “I spent a week there one night.” This movie invites you to spend a week in the tiny Texas burgh of Utopia for an hour and a half and the math just about works out.
The film is the brainchild of David Cook, a motivational speaker and golf fan (two occupations that, I confess, are completely opaque to me). It follows the experiences of rookie golfer Luke Chisolm who sextuple-bogies eighteen in front of all of ESPN then goes roaring (well, he appears to drive a Chevy Cruze, so “whining” might be the more apt verb) into the Texas hill country where he misses a cow, hits a fence, and fetches up at the feet of Johnny Crawford (Duval), a sort of ex-drunk, ex-pro, multi-gazillionaire Titleist whisperer who offers to help the kid improve his driving . . . and putting and chip shots and all the rest of it. “Uncle Johnny,” as he’s known to the three hundred and seventy-two other residents of the hamlet, invites Luke to sojourn for se’ennight in the folksy, God-fearing, and homogeneously anglo bosom of Utopia in order to find his game again.
There’s nothing very new here. Duval is Mr. Miagi to Luke’s Daniel-san. There’s even a virginal local girl whom the town bully considers his property but who, of course, falls for our mysterious young outsider. We get golf lessons that have nothing, on the surface, to do with golf: fly-fishing, flying an airplane, pitching washers at a hole in the ground, landscape portaiture. (Truthfully, I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Uncle Johnny intone, “Paint on/paint off . . .paint on/paint off.) In the end, of course, there is method to the mentor’s madness and the young Padawan uses the force to sink (or maybe not) the winning put. It’s all very Zen, except for the part where Luke shows up in church for Easter Sunday, though that’s a little bit Zen too because there’s not a cross in sight and the whole thing is sufficiently generic to buy the world a Coke and keep it company while it sings in perfect harmony. Uncle Johnny does give the kid a Bible (a King James, too!), but even the local house of worship is simply labeled Utopia United Church. (The part is played, I’m told, by an actual Methodist church. Would we call this “method(ist) acting”?)
And then there’s the dialogue. Sometimes even Duval can’t make these lines sound like something that anybody would ever actually say. I was pretty sure that time or two I caught him ad-libbing, like a master surgeon tossing aside all the fancy equipment to do chest-compressions in desperate hopes of getting a flat-lined patient pumping again. And the movie lacks any approach to psychological realism. We discover early and often that Luke’s dad is Earl Woods gone over to the dark side. He bullies little Luke, then bullies big Luke, and finally abandons big Luke (and, of course, his inner Little Luke) on the eighteenth green when the short-game finally hits the fan. But after the kid’s week in Utopia he goes home, where father and son settle the whole thing with three sentences and a hug. The third sentence belongs to Luke and consists of, “I forgive you.”
At this point, we go beyond bad screen writing to bad theology. Because too often, for Evangelicals, grace does not perfect nature . . . it erases it. A tearful embrace does not end twenty-some years of browbeating. Reconciliation might begin that way, but there is all the difference in the world between a beginning and an ending. It is interesting that the fictional time-line of “Utopia” is seven days – just a little longer than a Baptist youth camp and about double the lifespan of a Walk to Emmaus, two more Evangelical attempts to cook instant healing through what we call faith in God but what is really, I suspect, spiritual and emotional laziness – a refusal to work with the Holy Spirit by demanding that the Spirit do magic tricks instead of miracles.
Of course in the end “Seven Days in Utopia” is no better than it is simply because it doesn’t have to be. It will show handsome profits by playing to its conservative Evangelical/Hallmark greeting card/Course in Miracles/ base. Evangelicals will forgive the icky dialogue and even the amorphous “religion” in play here because at least here’s a movie that doesn’t depict us as illiterate abortion clinic bombers. The Hallmark crowd won’t notice, their palates already dulled by a steady diet of love/dove/above poetry. The Course in Miracles folks . . . well, that’s another story but I think they’ll turn up and order the extra-large popcorn into the bargain.
I will say this for the movie: It avoids some of the worst cliches that hover just off the edge of the script and invite the producers to sink into them like a tired man hitting his Lazyboy at the end of a hard day. 1) Luke doesn’t get the girl – at least, not yet. 2) Luke’s principal rival for golfing greatness is a seasoned pro but not an outrageous jerk; he wears all black but does not huff into a mask and intone, “Luke, I am your father.” (Interestingly enough, he is Asian, the only non-anglo with any significant screen time, and though the sports casters consistently admire his prowess we are programmed to hope he loses.) 3) The local rowdies see the light and are not doused in abundant shame. And finally, and perhaps most importantly if we are looking for praise-worthy features in a low-budget Evangelical piece of agitprop: Nobody utters the word “awesome” throughout the entire flick.