Ultimate Gift, TheReviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 03/11/07 19:47:36
There was a couple in the next row during my screening of “The Ultimate Gift,” and I’m pretty sure Jesus is not a fan of their twisted sense of humor. When Emily (Abigail Breslin) swears that she’s a true friend of Jason (Drew Fuller), she says that she’s sure she’ll know him until the day she dies. It’s a scene that’s repeated during the end credits too (more on that later), and it was during that recap that the man in front of me started to laugh. You see, he laughed because when she said that in the movie, we don’t yet know that she has leukemia. Get it? She could be dead any day! Death is so funny! I just don’t get those crazy Christians, although if you just got robbed of your $8, you’d probably need something to laugh about too.The ultimate gift, which is a wealthy dead grandfather’s final present to his misguided grandson, has neither an inherent monetary value nor a physical presence. Instead, it is a fairly obvious concept constructed by writer Jim Stovall that ultimately relates back to a belief in the Christian God that’s manifested from realizing the value in a series of other cliché conceptual gifts. What, like you expected more out of a movie made by Fox Faith?
The grandfather in question is Red Stevens (James Garner, supposedly in his last role), a multi-billionaire whose legacy is an ungrateful, spoiled family, a few deeply devoted friends and his name plastered on everything from a few hospital wings to an Ecuadorian library. The grandson is Jason (“Charmed’s” Drew Fuller), who supposedly hates his grandfather so much that he can’t even fake it for the man’s funeral. Red, it seems, did not hate Jason though, and decides to reconnect by sending Jason on a series of tasks that will ultimately lead him to his inheritance, the so-called ultimate gift. He must complete each task to the satisfaction of Red’s lawyer and old friend Ted Hamilton (Bill Cobbs) before being given the next one, and if at any time he fails to complete the task in the given time limit, he forfeits the final gift. It’s like a godly “Brewster’s Million,” just in reverse. And without Richard Pryor, who I’m pretty sure would not be welcome in this movie.
The trials that Red subjects his grandson to are all pretty ludicrous, but they’re designed to represent the spiritual 12-step program Stovall outlined in his book. The gifts, in order, are: the gift of work; the gift of money; the gift of friends; the gift of learning; the gift of problems; the gift of family; the gift of laughter; the gift of dreams; the gift of giving; the gift of gratitude; the gift of a day; and the gift of love. Just about the only thing missing is the gift of filmmaking talent, which this film could certainly use more of. Director Michael O. Sajbel (“One Night with the King”) and screenwriter Cheryl McKay have created a massive train wreck that wildly jumps between predictable clichés and asinine twists, including the strangest tangent I’ve ever seen. In addition to serving as the location of the gift of learning, a small Ecuadorian village is the site of Jason’s father’s mysterious death, the details of which only Red knows. When Jason steals away to look at the crash site of his father’s plane, he is taken prisoner by the men of a local drug lord, and when the ransoming yields no results, his kidnappers tell him that he’s to be executed the next day. Didn’t see that one coming, did ya? But as much as I’d love to blame Sajbel and McKay for the film’s problems, I’m instead going to lump them all on Stovall. Besides just writing the original book, Stovall and his production company kept partial ownership of the film, and a clause in Stovall’s contract made him intimately involved with every step of production. He rejected two early scripts for diverging too far from his book, and the film could only proceed after he approved everything from the screenplay to the actors. It’s one thing to be protective of your work, but Stovall took it so far to an extreme that he had to have sabotaged his own work. He didn’t believe enough in it to let it go, and that means we don’t believe enough in it to even take it and its Ecuadorian drug lord’s kidnappers seriously.
But if absurdity isn’t your bag, McKay added an secondary story that’s sure to grab some attention, although that’s only because it’s manipulative on a level unseen since “Pay It Forward.” When Jason is given the gift of problems by having all of his stuff taken away by his grandfather’s lawyers, he’s supposed to figure out who his true friends are, now that he nothing. His assignment — which conveniently doubles as the gift of friends — is to return in one month with one true friend, and since all of his old friends are money-grubbing golddiggers, he’s forced to make friends with the only person offering, parasol-wielding Emily (“Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin, who sadly does not dance this time around), who is conveniently the daughter of the single and attractive Alexia (Ali Hillis). With the exception of Ecuadorian drug lords, everything for Jason is just coming up daisies! Oh wait, that flower’s cliché is pushing up daisies. Whoops, wonder why I got that confused?
Oh yeah, it’s my not-so-subtle transition to revealing that not only is Emily cute, outspoken and occasionally goth, she’s also a cancer patient! And she’s stopped responding to treatments! What is it with Christians needing to doom innocent people just to make a point? Luckily, Breslin is more than talented to avoid the typical pitfalls of her stereotypical character, and her Emily honestly is the emotional heart of the picture. It’s just a shame that the movie felt the need to mine the dismal made-for-TV Hallmark movie territory in order to show it.
Perhaps I’m simply too jaded to really connect with “The Ultimate Gift”; maybe I just don’t get it. I understand that the Christian community doesn’t always get movies specifically marketed to them and when they finally get one, they’re quick to defend their territory. But come on, we can all do better than this. “The Ultimate Gift” is not a happy, inspiring, spiritual picture; it’s not even a good one. It’s just more tired clichés, repackaged with a Jesus bow that’s designed to mine money from the religious set, a group hungry enough for entertainment that it might even be fooled into thinking this dreck is better than the inferior garbage it is.Hey, Jim Stovall, I think you forgot one last gift. It’s the gift of $8, and you owe it to me. And no, I don’t take checks.
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