MOVIE REVIEW FOR "THE ULTIMATE GIFT"
by Sr. Helena Burns, fsp
"Life is how you live it, not how you spend it." This movie—now available on DVD--is based on the concise, best-selling book with the same title by Jim Stovall, whose own life reads like a best-selling book or movie: a blind Olympian weightlifter, author, investment broker and entrepreneur. However, the book/movie is not autobiographical, but a fictional tale of a self-made, mega-wealthy magnate, "Red" (James Garner), who dies and has uniquely dispersed his descendants' inheritance, especially in the case of his twenty-something grandson, Jason (Drew Fuller). The rest of the greedy, entitled relatives receive their share the old-fashioned way: the reading of the will by Red's trusted long-time friend and lawyer, Theodore Hamilton (Bill Cobbs). Jason, however, gets a series of challenges, offered to him directly by Red, via a videotaped message. If he passes each test), he moves on to the next message, and receives the gift that test brings with it. Jason is as spoiled as the rest of the family, but there is some particular bad blood between him and his grandfather. Sound trite? It could have been, but the lessons that Jason has to learn aren't quite cliché, and at a certain point, we're as curious as Jason to know just what his grandfather is "ultimately" driving at.
Along the way (unplanned by "Red"), Jason meets Emily (the born-to-act, toast-of-young-Hollywood, drum roll please, Abigail Breslin). (Abigail worked on "Ultimate Gift" as an unknown, around the same time she worked on "Little Miss Sunshine," that catapulted her to an Oscar-nomination and well-deserved stardom. She is now starring in the romantic comedy, "Definitely, Maybe.") The movie is worth seeing just for the jewel of a character Abigail Breslin plays, and for Abigail. Emily is a precocious kid who wears dark lipstick, old-lady clip-on earrings and long, dark skirts. She has some secret "bad blood" of her own, but is so outwardly-focused that she befriends Jason and plays matchmaker between Jason and her Mom (Ali Hillis). Her dialogue is hilarious.
A big misstep of the film is when we wind up in South America to unearth some information about Jason's father—which takes us right out of the story. A little misstep of the film is when Jason's old materialistic girlfriend comes back on the scene after his transformation. It looks like something went seriously wrong in the editing here and there is no closure (which could have been an incredibly telling "before and after" scene). I didn't buy that the belligerent Jason was doing all this "just to see," because he could easily have quit many times, and desperately wanted to quit. As a much more believable "point of no return" plot point, his trust fund should've been in jeopardy. But for each misstep there is something redeeming in the scene, and these were easily correctable boo-boos.
Although distributed by Twentieth Century Fox in theaters and on DVD, "Gift," has definite Christian roots from its Christian book publisher, Cook Communications, to the various committed Hollywood Christians that worked on the film (screenwriter, Cheryl McKay, who did a smart, major fleshing-out and upgrade of an adaptation; producer, John Shepherd). In a sense, this is a "Christian film," and it looks like it. What do I mean? I mean that, like "Contemporary Christian Music" was once striving to be on a par with secular contemporary music, and now is, Christian film is still getting there (and is almost there!) Like we once used to tune into Christian music that was trying very hard to be hip, but had an over-processed, copycat sound, today's Christian filmmaking, for the most part, has a bit of contrived-ness to it. While I admire the incredible skill, talent, professionalism and effort on the part of Christians in the film industry, it seems we need to put some more grit into it all. I don't push the lie that to be "real," things have to be about the darkest, lowest, seamiest side of life,* but emotions must run deep, events must be probable, highs must be high, lows must be low, words must ring true, actors' hair must get matted once in a while. No blithe skimming over the surface of life, even if we know that all of life ultimately has a happy Hollywood ending! "Ultimate Gift" has a light touch, but not that light. If you want us to believe that someone is truly homeless or kidnapped, they'd better look homeless and kidnapped in every way.
If you've noticed that "The Ultimate Gift" reads like a who's who of Hollywood's golden greats, you're right, and the cast includes Brian Dennehy and Lee Meriwether.
Through some surprise twists, turns, and false endings, Jason changes. The astounding beauty of the story and the film is that so few of us can relate to being a billionaire's scion, and will never be able to imitate what Jason actually achieves in the end, but we find ourselves automatically transferring principles into our own lives, and we feel the same elation that Jason does. I'll bet you can't guess what the "Ultimate Gift" is….
*I am going to murder this quotation that I haven't been able to find but am working on doing so: "Don't believe those who say that despair and gloom are the only realities. The wind in the scented pine woods is just as real." -- Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of the "Anne of Green Gables" books)