By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 8, 2007
Uplifting and positive, though sometimes predictable, “The Ultimate Gift” is the story of how one young man learns to live his life in a valuable, unselfish way.
The film opens at the funeral of Red Stevens, an entrepreneur who made a vast fortune in the oil business. At the funeral and the reading of the will, each member of his family is revealed to be, as Red expected, selfish and materialistic. Red seems to have held out hope for his grandson Jason, however. Instead of the expected monetary inheritance, Red leaves young Jason a series of challenges. Without knowing his actual reward, the “Ultimate Gift,” Jason must complete a series of tasks designed to help him learn the true relationship between wealth and happiness.
A month toiling at hard manual labor on a cattle ranch teaches him the value of work, while the removal of all his material possessions leads him to the gift of true friendship. Led by videotaped messages from his grandfather Red and supervised by Red’s trusted friend and lawyer, Ted Hamilton, Jason accumulates twelve of these valuable gifts that change his life in ways he never anticipated.
Based on the popular novel written by Jim Stovall and directed by Michael O. Sajbel, “The Ultimate Gift” is being marketed by Fox Faith films, a newly-created faith-based label from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment designed to provide inspirational and spiritual entertainment for Christian audiences.
As such, “The Ultimate Gift” certainly succeeds, providing a strong moral lesson about the dangers of greed and the uplifting values of love, faith, family and generosity. The film deals with the subject of religion tangentially, as two characters discuss the idea of an afterlife. By the end of the film, however, Jason makes a gesture that clearly shows that faith has become important to him.
The film is well-meaning but does occasionally become a little predictable. Jason’s ultimate redemption is never really in doubt, no matter how hard he fights it at the beginning of the journey. Along the way, he befriends a little girl suffering from leukemia and her mother; again, even though their friendship gets off to a rocky start, they overcome these obstacles to become a part of each other’s lives, as expected. These episodes, though predictable, are very sweet and ultimately heartwarming. The film falters most seriously, however, when it strays from the expected path. Jason’s journey takes him to South America where he is kidnapped by outlaws. This episode seems out of place in the movie and does not add appreciably to the plot.
The characters in “The Ultimate Gift” are at times stereotypical—gruff but loving grandfather, cranky lawyer, misguided youth—but strong performances make them enjoyable and realistic. James Garner is only on screen during Red’s videotaped messages to his grandson, but the always excellent actor has a strong presence. Brian Dennehy as the ranch owner who teaches Jason his first lesson, Bill Cobbs as the lawyer who was also Red’s best friend, and Lee Meriwether as his sympathetic and long suffering assistant all serve as strong mentors to Jason, and their performances are spot-on and a pleasure to watch. As Jason, Drew Fuller is able to hold his own in this company of old pros. By the end of the film you are rooting for him to make good on his grandfather’s hope for him. Finally, Abigail Breslin, the little girl recently nominated for an Academy Award for “Little Miss Sunshine,” just about steals the movie; her role as Emily, the little girl suffering from cancer who befriends Jason, could have been cloying, but this young actress imbues the character with a lively spirit and a likeable personality.
The “Ultimate Gift” wears its heart on its sleeve—that is, its message is very clear: Monetary wealth may be nice, but a well-lived life is one filled with love and generosity. The film shows one young man’s journey to this realization, and, along the way, it challenges the audience to recognize that each of us has that ultimate gift available to us.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.