by Martin Kaufmann
“I have a proposition for you,” Johnny Crawford says to Luke Chisolm, a talented but troubled young Tour pro. “Spend seven days with me in Utopia, we’ll find your game.”
Utopia, population 373, is the remote Texas outpost where Luke has arrived – actually, crash-landed – after the sort of course-management meltdown that would make Jean Van de Velde look like a Faldo-esque tactician. Johnny is the old Tour pro who came to Utopia many years ago to battle his own demons. Their relationship forms the basis of “Seven Days in Utopia,” the movie adaption of sports psychologist David L. Cook’s 2006 book, “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia.” The movie opens nationwide in theaters Sept. 2.
A dichotomoy is established between the paternal figures in Luke’s life: his domineering, results-oriented father, who is “counting on” Luke to bring home Tour trophies; and Johnny, who is more interested in the process that leads not just to great golf, but a fulfilling life.
“It’s my brother Johnny that you’re going to get the most from – if you pay attention,” Mabel, Johnny’s sister, tells Luke on his first day in Utopia.
There’s a “Karate Kid” wax-on, wax-off element to Johnny’s unconventional teachings. He uses fly fishing to teach mental discipline, painting to help visualize a shot, tossing washers in a hole to replicate an ideal putting stroke.
What’s most interesting about the screenplay is the harmony that Cook sees between sports psychology – his “see it, feel it, trust it” mantra – and his faith. “The first step in finding a good game is to find some conviction,” Johnny tells Luke. Johnny, of course, isn’t just talking about committing to a shot, but also to a higher power.
Running through the movie, as was the case with Cook’s novel, is a strong Christian theme that is generally anathema to Hollywood productions. There’s a powerful scene at a gravesite near the end of the movie where Johnny asks Luke, “What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone?” Contemplating that question, Luke comes to understand that golf is a game he plays, not the cornerstone of his life.
For a little movie, “Seven Days” has a big, formidable cast. Robert Duvall, as Johnny, could roll out of bed in the middle of winter and nail the part of crusty pro-turned-rancher. Lucas Black, as Luke, has scored perhaps his best role since 2004, the year of his winning performace as quarterback of the Permian Panthers in “Saturday Night Lights.” The cast also includes Melissa Leo, who won an Academy Award this year for her work in “The Fighter,” and Kathy Baker, a prolific character actress, as Mabel. Several Tour players, most notably K.J. Choi, also make appearances.
Their work is somewhat diminished by the movie's running commercial for Callaway Golf and some ham-handed tournament scenes, particularly near the end of the movie, that seem more worthy of the Hallmark Channel than the big screen. Luke’s father, played by Joseph Lyle Taylor, also undergoes an unconvincing transformation from take-no-prisoners taskmaster to quivering mouse of a man after Luke returns from Utopia.
With few exceptions, golf movies have had as difficult a time attracting audiences as a Nationwide Tour event in Arkansas in the middle of summer. Whether “Seven Days” can find an audience remains to be seen. But the fact that Luke’s journey touches on weightier themes than how to hit a knockdown shot on the windy Texas plains might help broaden its appeal.