Judge Adam Arseneau keeps his ultimate gift in his pants. Wait, that's terrible. I quit.
A grandfather's legacy, a grandson's discovery, and a journey that will take him in to the last thing he ever expected to find…
Positive, enjoyable, and life-affirming, The Ultimate Gift is a moving cinematic experience, embarrassingly so. I mean, it's packed full of enough saccharine to make your teeth fall out, but with great reluctance, I admit it warms the cockles. Don't you like having warm cockles?
Facts of the Case
Rebellious twentysomething trust-fund baby Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller, Charmed) is interrupted from his never-ending daze of parties, expensive dinners, and beautiful women to attend the funeral of his estranged grandfather, Red Stevens (James Garner, Space Cowboys), Texas magnate, oil baron, and noted philanthropist. Jason can barely hold his contempt in check, having little respect for the deceased, let alone the rest of his family.
The rest of the family, wealthy and opportunistic, circles the funeral like vultures, ready to snatch up their expected inheritance, but to their surprise are turned away practically empty-handed. Finally, young Jason is called into the office. To his surprise, his estranged grandfather has bequeathed to him "the ultimate gift," an unnamed reward for complying with specific instructions laid out in trust by his lawyer. If he accepts, he stands to inherit this enigmatic reward. If he fails, he gets nothing.
Reluctantly, Jason begins his grandfather's quest, which finds him thrust into all manner of unlikely situations: ranch hand in Texas, homeless on the streets, befriending young mother Alexia (Ali Hillis, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and her daughter (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine). Slowly, painfully, Jason realizes some hard truths about his life, his family, and the world in general—lessons about love, happiness, forgiveness, and spirituality—as he gets closer and closer to his grandfather's "ultimate gift"…
Once I tell you that The Ultimate Gift is released on Fox's Christian-value label, Fox Faith (motto: "films you can believe in"), two things are going to happen. First, people will divide like the Red Sea—half of you on one side, immediately getting your goats up and decrying the film for pushing ultra-conservative religious values in our faces, etc. The other half, as if by some doppelganger coincidence, will argue exactly the opposite. Both sides will kick and scream and bare their teeth, cursing epithets silently at the other, utterly convinced of their own righteousness. The second thing that is going to happen is the total dismissal of the film itself, with attentions fixating instead on issues entirely irrelevant to the film at hand—politics, religion, etc. Hopefully, the latter will not occur here. We're all about the movies, after all.
On paper, the film seems fairly bland: an arrogant trust-fund baby watches his rich family get shut out of the wealthy patriarch's will, only to find that he might be on the receiving end of the "ultimate" inheritance. To receive it, he needs to satisfy a series of bizarre clauses left in his grandfather's will that take him on a cross-country journey of personal growth and discovery that…that…ZZZZZ…Sorry, I fell asleep on the keyboard typing that out.
The surprising curveball thrown to this reviewer, a young, hip, left-leaning, non-religious-type person who sat down at his laptop ready to tear a scathing satirical review was discovering how enjoyable The Ultimate Gift is. Sugary and sentimental and predictably lush with conservative values, sure; but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with anything worse to say about it. It is exactly the kind of wholesome entertainment that evangelical families would love to spend a night in front of the television watching, reaffirming positive notions about life, death, wealth, and personal growth. Ironically (especially for those looking to slam the film), it is also the kind of film that non-religious folk all enjoy watching with our families in front of the television. It's cute. It's really cute. It's disgustingly cute, and it gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling in the belly. And let's face it: we all love our bellies to feel warm and fuzzy now and again, regardless of our politics or religious beliefs.
Things work out in The Ultimate Gift. There is never any question about this. The bad people get their comeuppance, the good people get not what they wanted, but what they needed (ooh, deep), and life is revealed to be a big tapestry of love, tears, self-sacrifice, and dream-chasing. The protagonists learns the value of money, the value of family, the value of love, and all the good bits in between that most people already know, but usually take for granted. Yes, admittedly lame, but The Ultimate Gift is so genuine, so sincere, so direct, and so unabashedly straightforwardly feel-good that resisting its charms is hard. Here is a film that exists for the sole purpose of uplifting its audience about the world, their lives, and our worth as human beings. Even the most cynical amongst us will walk away from The Ultimate Gift feeling just a bit better about their selves, their lives, their families, and their existence on this planet. This is a very nice feeling to have, and a pleasant side effect from an otherwise overly-sentimental bit of filmmaking that I'd normally never touch with a 60-foot aluminum pole. If this constitutes faith-based cinema, color me pleasantly surprised by how open, inviting, and appealing The Ultimate Gift is for…you know, us sinner-types.
The film hits every emotional bulls-eye it strikes out at, tugs every heart string, pulls every low-down emotional trick in the book to wrangle a response from its audience, and it works—it absolutely works, almost deviously so. This isn't the kind of film I normally give two bowel movements about, but I admit to finding myself quite enjoying it for all its philanthropic good-natured charm and life-affirming joyousness. Imagine a person in a room with a glowing smile; sure, your knee-jerk reaction might be to smack them on a bad day, but give it enough time and everyone (yes, everyone) eventually starts smiling along. You just can't help it. If you manage to get through The Ultimate Gift without feeling anything, any swirling uprising of positive vibes, then stay the hell away from me, because I'd probably be scared of you on the street.
Some decent acting performances and a sturdy, if occasionally unbelievable, screenplay cements The Ultimate Gift together, in particular young up-and-coming Abigail Breslin. She commands the screen with charisma and charm, almost frightening for an actress so young. Drew Fuller is often a bit wooden in his role as the slackadaisical rich kid, but his reactions are perfectly believable. He sells his character's metamorphosis with slow, measured balance. Brian Dennehy is…well, Brian Dennehy. These days, he really just kind of plays the same role of "surly Texan" over and over. James Garner has a magnificent performance as the deceased grandfather, only appearing on-screen during taped video recordings to the characters, but his presence in the film is influential. A final note of accolade goes to prolific character actor Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum) as the cantankerous Grinch-like lawyer who guides Jason through his quest, my personal favorite performance.
On a side note (but one too cool to pass up discussing), The Ultimate Gift is adapted from the best-selling motivational novel by Jim Stovall, a man whose achievements in life make me look bad. The dude is a national champion Olympic weightlifter, a successful entrepreneur and investment broker, and best-selling author and motivational speaker. Oh, yeah; also, he's extremely blind. Stovall is also the co-creator and president of the Narrative Television Network, which makes movies and television accessible for blind and visually impaired folk, an accomplishment worthy of great praise (even without mentioning all the other stuff he's awesome at). Kudos to the guy for living life to the fullest.
The Ultimate Gift has a great-looking presentation—nicely balanced color palate, good black levels, and a clean, sharp transfer. I noticed some anti-aliasing and edge enhancement present here and there, and some of the flesh tones get a bit jumbled due to some bad compression now and again, but nothing too terrible. Director Michael O. Sajbel, a Christian filmmaker by trade, directs The Ultimate Gift with steady confidence. The film makes up for its lack of visual style with a straightforward, deadpan delivery of comedic moments and slight sight gags.
The audio comes in two flavors, both cool in their own right. The first, a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround transfer has a surprisingly active bass track, clear dialogue, and decent clarity, though the rear channels get left out of the mix too often for my tastes, save for the orchestra and horn theme swelling up on cue for the tear-jerking moments. The second track is a stereo English for the Visually Impaired track, a fantastic feature for those with sight problems. The track narrates on-screen action in between sequences of dialogue, making it similar to listening to an audio book. It is such a head-smackingly smart feature to include for the disabled that it is a wonder why more DVDs do not include similar options.
As for supplements, there's not much of substance. A small 12-minute featurette interviews author Jim Stovall, cast and crew, and their reflections on making the film. We get two pseudo-featurettes (commercials, really) for "Leave a Legacy" encouraging philanthropy and "Live The Ultimate Gift," a shameless plug for Stovall's accompanying merchandise to the novel and movie. Two music videos, one for Sara Groves's "Something Changed" and one for Ed Coggin's "Legacy" are included, as well as a theatrical trailer, some teasers for other Fox Faith productions, and a small sneak peek at the upcoming Redemption of Sarah Cain.
So really, a ten-minute cast and crew interview and a whole wad of adverts and trailers. Pretty lousy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There was a reason I mentioned the whole "Fox Faith" thing earlier. Though The Ultimate Gift does a marvelous job of being open to appreciation to all, it occasionally tips its hand here and there. To me, the occasional line of overly religious dialogue stands out like rough edges on an otherwise smooth surface, or like a sour note jumping out in an orchestra for a split second. Such deviations hardly ruin the overall presentation, but are still worth bringing attention to.
I wish The Ultimate Gift could have gotten away with excluding such dropped hints, though few in numbers. I found the film to be quite open and universal for all to appreciate, regardless of denomination, but I almost lost the thread a few times from jerking my knees. Once you start dropping religious bombs into a film—pro-life politics, comments on financial worth straight out of the Parable of the Talents, God, Jesus, and the like—you alienate people. Be it intentionally or unintentionally, you just do.
For 95 percent of its running time, The Ultimate Gift is surprisingly sweet, wholesome, and uplifting without getting in your face about God or Jesus in any direct fashion. That last five percent nags me, ever so slightly, but it nags me all the same.
Okay, I surrender. The Ultimate Gift works on virtually every level—as a drama, as family entertainment, and as a spiritually enriching message about life and death, and does so effortlessly, juggling its roles with perfect grace and dexterity. It's just too gosh darn wholesome.
Hey…what's this warm, fuzzy feeling in my belly? Love? Respect for my common man?
Oh, jeez, it's spreading! Help! Call a doctor! Get it off! Get it off! It burns! IT BURNS!!
I really did want to hate it. Honest, I did. Not guilty.
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• "Behind the Scenes of The Ultimate Gift" featurette
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