The Ultimate Gift
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?
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.It is too bad, actually,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: August 18, 2007.