March 15, 2007

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The Ultimate Gift (PG)
Fish gotta swim, reality show contestants gotta eat worms and I gotta pan the half-baked, vaguely religious Brewsterís Millions knock-off The Ultimate Gift, a movie that, granted, really isnít made for me.

If youíve ever bemoaned the cultural values of the liberal elite in Hollywood, then you are probably who Fox Faith had in mind with this film. I feel it is not unfair to point out that Fox is as big and as Hollywood as any of those godless Los Angeles heathens and that Fox Faith is not the result of a religious epiphany but of the box office numbers for The Passion of the Christ. Just so weíre clear, Fox Faith would make movies about good, old-fashioned middle-Indian Hindu values if it knew how to; this is about dollars not devotion.

I feel Iíve got to point this out because just as Jackass 2 is a crass attempt to cash in on the desires of teenage boys, The Ultimate Gift is an equally naked attempt to go after the demographic that likes some Jesus references in their movies.

Whatís being sold here is the tale of a uber-rich family, all the progeny of Red Stevens (James Garner). He dies and they come around all horns and claws looking to pounce on the fortune of which their trust funds are only a very small part. All get enough to continue their wastrel lifestyles but none gets the big prize of $2 gajillion, or whatever Redís princely worth is. The last to hear the reading of the will is grandson Jason (Drew Fuller), an angry lad who is equally accustomed to unearned wealth but with more of a right to his petulance. Seems Grandpa Red had something to do with the death of Jasonís father, for which Jason has decided that he will be allowed to hate everyone and act the 15-year-old for eternity.

Grandpa Red, dead though he is, has other plans. He wants Jason to learn some lessons, like the self-reliance and the satisfaction of a hard dayís work and other things that youíd call good Republican values if you hadnít paid attention to the last 30-some years of Republican politics. Thusly, he sets Jason off on a series of tasks, the unspoken understanding being that if Jason completes these tasks to the satisfaction of Ted Hamilton (Bill Cobbs), Redís lawyer and only real friend, heíll receive some ultimate reward.

Along this journey from snot-head rich boy to snot-head even-richer-boy with Faith in God, Jason meets Emily (Abigial Breslin, through I doubt her agent will be putting this at the top of her resume), a plucky little girl with cancer, and Alexia (Ali Hillis), her single, self-sacrificing mother. They teach our tenderfooted Jason what real problems are. Also, how to love. Also, the real meaning of family.

In addition to a giant inheritance, a goose chase of life lessons and a cancer girl and her mother, the movie also features a trip to Latin America wherein our hero learns to serve the people, reconcile his feelings about his dead father and is captured by drug dealers and held prisoner. Which is to say that there isnít a subtle moment in this movie. And the performances and dialogue match the ham-fisted style of the plot.

For all its straining to hit every topic in the ďvaluesĒ playbook, this movie isnít too overtly Christian; the references to God, heaven and Jesus arenít as ever-present as in last yearís Facing the Giants and other Christian films. But the movie is unsubtle and, as with Jackass 2 or Beerfest, crass. There is something unseemly in how closely-connected faith and money are in the way in which characters are punished and rewarded here. Not to get too ranting-at-the-money-changers, but The Ultimate Gift seems to turn sincere belief into some kind of key to the plush life more than a cause of spiritual well-being.

For those who feel that The Ultimate Gift Reflects Their Values let me say that itís not the specific point of view I object to (after seeing a handful of films such as this I am eager for a well-written, well-acted Christian movie and I genuinely liked One Night with the King), itís the tacky and inexpert way that the story is translated to the screen. If a movie studio is going to go to the trouble of pandering to a demographic, it should respect the demographic enough to give them a movie worth their time. D+

Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence and language. Directed by Michael O. Sajbel and written by Cheryl McKay (from a book by Jim Stovall), The Ultimate Gift is an hour and 57 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Faith.