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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > The Ultimate Gift

MOVIE REVIEWS

THE ULTIMATE GIFT (2007)

Starring Drew Fuller, James Garner, Ali Hillis, Abigail Breslin, Lee Meriwether, Brian Dennehy, Bill Cobbs, Mircea Monroe, Donna Cherry and D. David Morin.

Screenplay by Cheryl McKay.

Directed by Michael Sajbel.

Distributed by Fox Faith.  114 minutes.  Rated PG.

The Ultimate Gift

Have you ever seen (and how many haven't?) that Christian Children's Fund commercial where a middle-aged, bearded missionary introduces you to the children of an African village who need our help.  For less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day, you can feed a whole village.  Then he introduces us to a starving but adorable African child.  He makes a ham-handed and ultimately unfunny joke about she may be able to avoid starvation with your help, but she won't be able to avoid homework. 

The man is doing important work.  He is doing selfless, holy work.  So you want to really like him and support his cause.  However, he is so self-righteous and devoid of humor that you can't help but have a horrible urge to pants him, right there on camera.

The Ultimate Gift is sort of like that commercial stretched out to feature length.

It is the latest offering from Fox Faith, yet another arm of Rupert Murdoch's media empire; this one dedicated to offering wholesome, religious fare to the cineplex masses.  (I find it moderately amusing that these films are corporate cousins of 'Til Death, The Simple Life and the Fox "News" Channel.)

And you know what?  There is a need for good, moral fare in the cinema.  I am all for it.  However, does imparting a virtuous point really have to be so manipulative, humorless and predictable?

It is too bad, actually, because The Ultimate Gift has an intriguing storyline, strong performances -- and as said before -- a positive, uplifting message.  I just wish it didn't keep slipping into sticky-sweet Hallmark sentimentality.

The plot actually revolves around a man who has already died.  Red Stevens (James Garner) is a billionaire who has long been estranged from his shallow, money-hungry family.  (One look at the haggard age of James Garner will be horribly depressing to Rockford Files fans.  I recognize that he is playing a dying man, so I hope at least some of it was done with makeup.) 

There is only one member of the clan for whom he holds out any hope -- his grandson Jason (Drew Fuller).  Before Red died, he videotaped himself and dangled the opportunity of his fortune before the young man, however it comes with a catch.  Red has set up a series of challenges -- gifts, Red calls them -- that Jason must achieve before getting "the ultimate gift."  Each time Jason achieves one of the challenges, a new video of Red is shown to help him move forward in his spiritual growth.

It's not the first time this basic storyline has been told onscreen (Brewster's Millions and Greedy come immediately to mind), but normally the plot is used to take a cynical look at the hazards of inheriting too much money.  There is nothing cynical about The Ultimate Gift (except maybe the way they keep dolloping sentimental, simplistic family values lessons on the audience).  

Honestly, at first we don't know why Jason is worthy of this faith -- he too is spoiled, surly and totally estranged from his grandfather.  Then again, the dead man himself does not seem to have been so spiritual or good until he was staring death in the face -- though at least he had the benefit of being a self-made man and thus not sycophantic, spoiled and selfish like most of his offspring.

However as Jason suffers and strains for his "gifts" -- the satisfaction of hard work, friendship, experiencing poverty, charity, selfless aspirations, forgiveness, laughter, family and eventually love -- Jason becomes a better, more caring and more religious man. 

He finds the capacity for love in a beautiful woman (Ali Hillis) and her adorable (but slightly precocious) and terminally ill little daughter (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine herself.)  In the storyline, Breslin's character may be dying of leukemia, but she is really dying as a screenwriter's device.  (Her existence also allows the filmmakers to have her mother make a passing, but far from subtle, pro-life argument.)  How can a man remain selfish and shallow when an adorable little moppet is so brave in the face of the almighty?  Emily must die so Jason can experience the importance of life. 

You know what?  In many ways, The Ultimate Gift IS compelling.  It does work on the level it has set itself up for.  It is often gripping -- even though you recognize that your heartstrings are being plucked like a banjo. 

Dave Strohler

Copyright 2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 18, 2007.

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Copyright 2007   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 18, 2007.

 

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