God bless Robert Duvall. An American cinematic institution, our greatest living actor makes the fortune-cookie bromides of Matthew Dean Russell’s Seven Days in Utopia sound like Yeats. Beginning with a tone-setting quote from Isaiah, the film follows pro-golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas Black) on a road less travelled to the Texas hamlet of Utopia, where Duvall’s cowboy, coincidentally a retired golfer, helps the whipper snapper heal from a lifetime of psychological—and, possibly, J-horror-film-inflicted—wounds and better his game by putting him through a series of tests that include Fishing for Dummies, Painting 101, and a variation of Hillbilly Horseshoes.
This unabashed Hallmark card at times exudes an innocent stillness, regarding Utopia’s local color and the customs of its God-fearing, less-than-a-thousand populace with charming, unpretentious nonchalance. Arriving in Utopia after a televised meltdown on the pro circuit, the sorta-city-mouse Luke is bombarded with holistic displays of G-rated hospitality, from the playful sauciness of Kathy Baker’s pie-baking hotel proprietress to the chaste world-wonderment of Deborah Ann Woll’s firefly-catching, wannabe horse whisperer. Even the bullying he’s subjected to by Brian Geraghty’s loutish young cowboy is of a puppy-doggish sort, nothing that can’t be quelled by proving one’s mettle during a game of Texas hold’em…will bulls!
What dooms Seven Days in Utopia is its contrived storytelling and dim-witted artistry. Luke recalls his pro-circuit freakout as if he were suffering from the most horrific migraine of all time—and for audiences, especially montage-phobes, it may actually cause one. His nuance-free flashbacks, typically bookended by the swinging of impossibly loud-sounding golf clubs, are super-sized flashbombs of lame psychological profiling that might have seemed less awkward within the confines of a genre film. (The nature of Luke’s psychic stress is such that it recalls Sookie’s mind-reading moments from True Blood.) But the epitome of the film’s remedial show-and-tell narrative approach is a graphic match between Luke’s father walking away from him on the pro-golf course and Duvall’s Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque mentor doing the same on another, a laughably literal-minded illustration of Luke’s daddy issues.
The brutal condescension of the film’s aesthetic isn’t easily tolerated, though Seven Days in Utopia redeems itself somewhat in its final stretch, during a showdown between Luke and a sorta-villain at the Valero Texas Open. Even though the story’s use-the-force-Luke kicker is painfully telegraphed, you admire the briskly edited game and manner in which the audience isn’t force-fed the rules of golf in the process. But any goodwill the film musters is gallingly eradicated in what may be one of cinema’s most holier-than-thou cappers, a non-ending so contemptuous of its audience that you don’t doubt that the filmmakers only have the best intentions of Seven Days in Utopia‘s marketing team in mind.