Judge Gordon Sullivan's perfect gift is a convertible.
A Touching & Uplifting Holiday Story
I won't pretend to be an expert on African-American culture, but my understanding is that there is no Christmas classic (on the level of Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life) aimed at the African-American community. Sure there's Queen Latifah's Last Holiday and A Medea Christmas, but the African-American demographic is largely overlooked when it comes to holiday cheer. Enter playwright Alvin Moore Jr. With The Perfect Gift he adapts his stage play for the screen (handling both the writing and directing) and puts experienced actors (Clifton Powell, Darius McCrary) alongside some newcomers (American Idol winner Ruben Studdard). The result is something few will want to unwrap.
Michael (Ruben Studdard) and his wife Sandra (Golden Brooks, Girlfriends) are hoping for a low-key Christmas celebration. They're going to get their wish until both sets of their parents show up. Tensions run highm and Michael learns the true meaning of Christmas.
I blame Tyler Perry. He started on the stage and then brought his brand of comedy to the big screen. He demonstrated the power of the African-American viewing dollar and got serious rich in the process. Now others are following in his wake, writing more for the stage and hoping to translate that stage success to box-office dollars. From what I gather online, Alvin Moore Jr. is an earnest young writer who's trying to connect with his African-American audience while spreading a little bit of his love of Christ.
That's all well and good, but The Perfect Gift pretty much gets everything wrong from the get-go:
• The Perfect Gift uses the same reheated "Christmas teaches us about giving ourselves" message that every other Christmas film tries to shovel down our throats. One of the reasons I enjoy a film like Last Holiday is that it tempers the self-sacrifice story with a bit of carpe diem for its heroine. The Perfect Gift just gives us the same old story. From the film's opening scene it's possible to predict pretty much the rest of the film.
• The Perfect Gift looks like a low-rent sitcom. I totally understand that this was adapted from a stage play. I also understand that it's likely the budget wasn't too high. Still, neither of these facts excuses the look of the film. Characters wander around sets like they're walking around a stage. If it were actually a stage (like Moore simply filmed a performance in a theater), that would be excusable. As it is, The Perfect Gift looks like neither fish nor fowl. It doesn't have the mobility or editing of film, but it doesn't have the feeling of continuity created by a play. That makes the film a frustrating thing to watch.
• Speaking of sitcoms, The Perfect Gift aims for comedy sometimes, and misses the mark by a mile. Much like the plot, the comedy revolves around reheating stereotypical comments. Gender-based tropes about dad being a football nut or mom only caring about the way Michael's wife looks are paraded around like they've ever been funny.
• Finally, the film's casting is just not right. The old hands do a fine job—Darius McCrary and Clifton Powell are fine—but casting Ruben Studdard was a bum move. The guy has a fine voice, and his notoriety might get the film some attention it would otherwise lack, but his performance here is painfully lifeless. I'm sure it's not all his fault (the script must be blamed for some of it), but he sleepwalks his way through the performance. Heck, I would have appreciate even some bad acting to hold my interest rather than the tepid stuff on display here.
In the film's defense, this DVD is pretty okay. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer reproduces the low-rent sitcom vibe of the feature, with a decent amount of detail and good color saturation. The stereo soundtrack keeps the dialogue audible (though I'm not sure that's always a good thing). Extras start with a couple of excised moments, including some adlibbing and one of the characters singing. On the disc, there's also a still gallery. The main bonus is inclusion of the film's soundtrack on a bonus CD.
I know it sounds like I've been harsh on The Perfect Gift, but I'm left with the feeling that everybody involved could have done better. Diehard Ruben fans will want to see this, and those who've seen all the other African-American holiday films might want to scrape the bottom of the barrel with this one, but otherwise there's little to recommend this film.
Guilty of being far from perfect.
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