It may not be the most Christian attitude for me to have, but I am usually leery of Faith-based movies. You have to give them credit. They have a wonderful message, and the lessons they contain are ones that line up perfectly with how I view the world. The problem with this is that the minds behind them often have a difficult time translating their vision through the medium of cinema. Film is a visual art, and the visuals need to align with the story telling. The style in which those stories are presented matters, too. Here I am specifically referring to the performances of the actors. Because the resources available to the producers behind these movies is usually limited, certain sacrifices are made in order to get the project finished. Since a large portion of every budget goes to the performers, this is usually where productions are most hit. Still, I hold out great hope for this genre. While Christianity is not the main focus of today’s film, The Ultimate Gift (2006), it is nonetheless present and a part of the fabric of its runtime. It also sets a bar for other similar movies to meet.
We do not start with the main character in The Ultimate Gift. Instead, it begins with the death of his grandfather, Howard “Red” Stevens (James Garner). Before he passes, he records his last will and testament. Given the apparent extensive wealth he had garnered (no pun intended), his family of leaches and reprobates make it through a perfunctory funeral to gather greedily at the law firm of Red’s best friend and attorney, Mr. Theophilus Hamilton (Bill Cobbs). There, the contents of the will are read to the various descendants who seem only interested in how big of a slice of the financial pie they are going to get. Waiting outside the boardroom and away from the other vultures is Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), Red’s estranged grandson. His attendance at the funeral had been a shock because of a previous disagreement between him and the deceased meant there was no love lost between them. Still, like the others, he is there simply to collect a check. When it comes to his turn, the room is cleared, the video Red prepared (which had been solely for Jason) is shown, and Mr. Hamilton opens a box with a key. Inside are a series of envelopes, each (as it turns out) containing a new task that Jason must complete in order to earn his inheritance, and I do mean earn. To go through them all would be tedious, so I will try to hit the highlights. As a whole, they are meant to teach the spoiled Jason the value of being a good person and hard work. The first task is to travel to a ranch outside of Houston owned by another of Red’s friends, a former business associate named Gus Caldwell (Brian Dennehy). There he must perform manual labor for one month, namely building a fence. I should also mention that if Jason does not perform these tasks to the satisfaction of a private detective following him, the whole deal is off, meaning he gets nothing. Following his sojourn in Texas cattle country, Jason next has all his possessions in his luxury apartment taken from him, along with his cars, and his money, effectively rendering him homeless. During this time, he is told that he must make one genuine friend. When even his girlfriend, Caitlin (Micrea Monroe), seems disinterested when he becomes broke, he turns to a random little girl he meets in the park where he sleeps on a bench. This is the black lipstick wearing Emily Rose Drummond (Abigail Breslin), and after some coaxing she agrees to go along with the charade. Though Jason is intent on ditching the acquaintance after this part is complete, he learns that Alexia Drummond (Ali Hillis), Emily’s mother, is about to lose her apartment. He comes by this information after he is offered a job at the hospital that bears his family’s name, as well as a place to stay in the basement, and finds Emily in the cancer wing. By this point, Emily has begun to take a liking to Jason, and encourages him and Alexia to start a romance. This possibility is put on hold, though, when one of the next tasks is to fly to Ecuador to continue the charitable work begun by his father and grandfather in that country. It is here that the source of the rift between Jason and Red is revealed, the younger blaming the elder for his dad’s death. As it turns out, the plane crash that killed Jason’s dad came about because dad flew a dangerous mission that he was advised not to take. Then, like father, like son, Jason is taken hostage by Ecuadorian rebels and held captive for months. Though he is able to escape and make it back to the United States, he believes he has been away for too long. Still, he is able to rekindle things with Alexia, with Emily’s blessing, and makes good on a promise to give Emily a Christmas, albeit a late one. Evidently satisfied that he had completed everything, Mr. Hamilton gives Jason a check for $100 million to do with as he pleases. He decides to sink the whole check into a new hospital and temporary living quarters for families with children battling cancer, naming it in honor of Emily who loses her own fight. Because of this selfless act, it triggers yet another clause in Red’s will, giving Jason full control of an estate estimated at over $2 billion in worth. We end with Jason and Alexia kissing on the same park bench on which he once slept.
Yes, The Ultimate Gift is a bit schmaltzy. That is okay for me because I like a bit of schmaltz in my movies. One can legitimately say, though, that it does beat you over the head with its message. Again, fine by me. There are definite Christian overtones to the movie against which I think people negatively reacted, at least judging by the limited critic’s reviews I glanced at while researching it. For instance, while Emily is in the hospital, one of her favorite places to hang out is in the on-site chapel. Sitting before a statue of Jesus, believing that she is going to die, she and Jason have a conversation about what Heaven will be like. That is, of course, hitting the nail squarely on the head. In a deeper sense, Emily is Jason’s guide for the transformation he undergoes. Before meeting her, he treated the tasks he is given to perform in a mechanical manner, seeing them as something to get over with before he could return to his normal life. God is always sending us guides to help us get back to the life he wants us to lead. Recognizing them is the tricky part. Prior to going through what he did, Jason would have never imagined a little girl with leukemia would have anything to do with him, let along by an awesome example of overcoming and transcending suffering. In that same scene in the chapel, Emily is more concerned about what will happen to her mom after she dies rather than her own condition. The further along in the process Jason goes, and the more he gets to know the Drummonds, he increasingly understands that life is more than the material things he once pursued. The Bible parallels these sentiments, such as in Matthew where Jesus admonishes his disciples to store up treasure for themselves in Heaven rather than in this life. Yes, Jason did get the earthly treasure, too, but not without first learning about the, er, ultimate gift. . . .
So, yes, it must be acknowledged that The Ultimate Gift is a bit heavy-handed in its approach. At least it has a clear, moral direction. That is more than I can say for a whole host of other movies, past and present. As such, if you are in the mood for a little bit of a tear-jerker, with an uplifting ending, go for it. If only this one could be the floor for all other similar productions.