The Ultimate Gift
(PG, 114 minutes, 2006)
The Ultimate Gift is a dramatic family film based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jim Stovall. Drew Fuller (best known from Army Wives and Charmed) stars as Jason Stevens, a man who earns his inheritance in a most unusual but spiritually fulfilling manner.
The movie begins the passing of Jason’s rich grandfather, sublimely played by James Garner. The patriarch’s multi-billion dollar estate is up for grabs, and the family sharks start circling. Jason, who strongly resents the man because his father died while working for him when Jason was a child, believes that he won’t receive anything. Much to his surprise, his grandfather has a mystery inheritance package for Jason, but it requires him to complete twelve assignments within the span of a year. Each assignment focuses on a life lesson or gift designed to help shape Jason into the man that his grandfather believed he could become. These lessons are the gifts of work, money, friends, learning, problems, family, laughter, dreams, giving, gratitude, a day, and love.
Jason is guided through these quests by Mr. Hamilton and Miss Hastings, the family attorney and his secretary, who are portrayed by Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum and Oz the Great and Powerful) and Lee Meriwether (Catwoman from Batman: The Movie). Garner, Cobbs, and Meriwether frame the major positive notes of this movie, punctuated by the overall message behind the story. For a Christian movie, it mostly stays away from the preachiness that I find tiresome in the genre, however when it hits those moments, the faith is turned on with the full power of a fire hose.
On his path, Jason meets a brash and outspoken girl named Emily, played by Abigail Breslin. I know Breslin best from Little Miss Sunshine and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, and I liked her in both, but it does pain me to say that I liked her better in the latter film than I did in this one. Her highlights in The Ultimate Gift are limited to witty rejoinders with variable delivery. She made me laugh on a couple of occasions, and she does decently portray a sense of innocence surrounding the Gift of a Day, but that was about it for her. Sadly, her talents were underutilized and marginalized in a story bogged down by its own moral weight.
The rest of the cast, including Ali Hillis as Emily’s mother Alexia, contribute to the painfully predictable and equally clichéd averageness of this film. The supporting characters nearly twirl their mustaches in attempting to look evil, and the resolution to Emily and Jason’s stories is telegraphed well ahead of time. The plot is cookie cutter with little deviation from the Jason’s growth, which harms the film when the story periodically reverses course on character development. In one scene, Jason understands what his quest means and embraces it, but in the very next scene he reverts to his former pig-headed petulance when he doesn’t get his way. Additionally, for a story that places so much priority on time – each of the gifts must be completed in a month’s time – the production team did very little to convey its passage. Jason is homeless for a month, yet appears freshly shaven during that time. In contrast, he is imprisoned for a segment of the movie, but grows an overblown Hollywood beard while still maintaining his haircut.
Ultimately, The Ultimate Gift has a decent message that bears repeating, but it needed to find an innovative way to tell it. What started as a clever method of doing so quickly reverted to sappy and overblown emotionalism that falls flat and fails to resonate.
At the box office, the film opened in limited release in March 2007 and earned $3.4 million. It has found new life as a sort of cult classic in the home entertainment market, and a sequel based on the follow-up novel, The Ultimate Life, will be released to DVD and Blu-Ray on December 10.
My rating: 4/10
IMDb rating: 7.4/10