Here is a movie that falls in between the good and the bad — it is neither and it is both. The Ultimate Gift is a film that has its heart in the right place but doesn't quite know how to express it in a meaningful way, in a cinematic sense. The message is there, but when it comes to story and characters, The Ultimate Gift is seriously lacking. It is the story of a spiritual awakening, based upon the inspirational novel of the same name by Jim Stovall. The film was released through FOX Faith, a relatively new imprint from – you guessed it – FOX, that focuses on more spiritually oriented family films.
The story centers on the relationship between the recently deceased Red Stevens (James Garner in what he says will be his last film) and his grandson Jason (Drew Fuller). Red was a billionaire tycoon who has left portions of his vast estate to various members of his family, all of whom have been spoiled by money and power. One by one they are doled out little pieces of what Red left behind. When it came to the end of the will reading, the room was cleared until only Jason and the executor of the will, Ted Hamilton (Bill Cobbs), remain. Red retained a special place in his heart for the youngest of the Stevens clan, and he set up his will in a way to bestow upon Jason a series of gifts that would culminate in the ultimate gift.
Jason lives life as he wills, a trust fund baby with the bad attitude to match. For some reason he has a chip on his shoulder in relation to his grandfather. Various family members also hint at animosity between the two, though it never gets any more specific than that. Anyway, Red has left video recordings of himself laying out the ground rules by which Jason must play in order to receive said ultimate gift. The surly young Jason is sent on quests which are aimed at imparting to him a new piece of knowledge about what it means to be a good human being, or rather to teach him something about the real world outside of his life of leisure. He is sent to work for a month on a large Texas ranch, he has his possessions taken away and his accounts frozen, he is also charged with making a friend and being generous. All of these things target him and attempt to make him see the path of his life prior to setting him on this new path.
A big problem with this as a film, rather than the validity of its content, is that there is no real character development or plot progression. The experience could be likened to watching a book; each test – sorry, each gift – is broken down into its own little segment. It is not unlike watching the chapters. Another problem is that we are told what happens without being shown. For example, following the freezing of Jason's assets, we are expected to believe he has spent a good amount of time living on a park bench, through this time Jason is merely afflicted with some bad boy beard stubble. It just does not feel real. Each "chapter" is too short, only showing us the beginning, the end, and a taste of the middle. It is hardly enough for the lesson to display any impact on Jason, or on the audience.
Besides the structure, the acting does not help. Most of the performances are wooden. Drew Fuller's Jason is a rather unlikable character, but it is all one note. Even when he reaches the expected moment of clarity where everything dawns on him, I did not feel as if he believed it. At his side for half the film is Ali Hillis, who plays the standard troubled mother of a sick child. While she did a decent job, I did not get anything out of the performance. The one person that did breathe some life, and seemed to "get it" more than anyone else is Abigail Breslin, the Oscar nominated young actress from Little Miss Sunshine and No Reservations. She brings life and humor to her role as young Emily. She really lit up the screen and deserves all the credit for making this at all watchable.
I didn't want to dislike The Ultimate Gift, but by the same token I found it rather hard to like as well. There was not much subtlety to it, and if you missed it, everything is recapped during the end credits. So, if you happen to fall asleep for a bit, or miss something, there is no need to pause or rewind as you will be able to catch up on what you missed at the end.
In their efforts to create an uplifting family film, the filmmakers succeeded in crafting a rather dull message film that has the potential for so much more. The potential is squandered on a story that does not enter the realm of believability. Not for a second did I buy into this videotaped series of missions from a deceased patriarch, it felt far too contrived. The screenplay, by Cheryl McKay, is forced through hoops to make all of the gifts fit. There are just too many steps to go into for this version to work. Perhaps, if they pared it down to just a couple and dedicated some more time to them it would have had a greater impact.
Now we come down to the features on the DVD, and this is where everything was brought down another notch or two. This release is turned into a marketing tool for other products inspired by the book and the movie. The film is introduced by the author of the novel, Jim Stovall, who encourages us to look at the extras on the DVD and get the The Ultimate Gift Experience Kit, which is filled with items geared to bring more meaning to the gifts from the book and movie. The extras include a couple of featurettes called "Leave a Legacy," which spotlights the memories of a few inspirational people, and "Live the Ultimate Gift," which brings up the kit again. These are more like commercials to me, perhaps one mention in the context of a featurette would be fine, but I did not care for this use of the bonus materials section of the disk.
The extras also include fluffy 12 minute behind the scenes featurette, a couple of music videos, and a sneak peek for another FOX Faith release: The Redemption of Sarah Cain. Rounding out the disk are trailers for The Ultimate Gift and a few other FOX Faith films.
Bottom line. The message is a bit heavy-handed in execution, as it is thrust to the fore at the expense of story and character. I appreciate what they were attempting, in making a movie that was good for the whole family and espoused a positive message. It is just a shame that the resulting film is rather disappointing and shallow.Powered by Sidelines