Imagine "Chicken Soup for the Soul" crossed with "Tuesdays with Morrie" crossed with Tony Robbins crossed with the PAX network, all of which is then slathered in author Jim Stovall's self-invented twelve-step program for personal growth. Along the way, we get a kid dying of leukemia and a guy kidnapped by Ecuadorian drug warlords. Welcome to "The Ultimate Gift." It would be flat out stupid if it weren't so gosh darn ridiculous. On second thought: it's both.
Consider: the hero of our tale, a spoiled rich twentysomething named Jason (Drew Fuller) has never ridden a public bus before in his life. So when one pulls up and he's supposed to get on, he just stands there, frozen, unsure of what to do. One would think that even very rich, very spoiled people unfamiliar with public transportation would at least have some sense of how busses work. Not Jason. For he in addition to being rotten, rude, self-centered, and thick-headed, he is also the dumbest person alive. He is the Paris Hilton of Fox Faith movie characters.
"The Ultimate Gift" opens with the funeral of oil magnate Red Stevens (James Gardner), followed by a reading of the will that knows no subtlety: everyone in attendance is an upper crust buffoon who loudly huffs, puffs, and leaves angrily upon learning of his or her lack of inheritance.
And then there is Jason, whom we met earlier as he rolled into the funeral with sports car revving at full volume, blaring his hatred for the ol' dead coot. It seems Red has something special planned for his grandson. A videotaped will reveals that if Jason accomplishes twelve tasks in twelve months, he will be given "the ultimate gift," which remains unnamed but is probably not a Big Mouth Billy Bass. Each task will teach Jason a valuable life lesson, even if he doesn't realize it at the time.
Such tasks include working on a Texas ranch, living penniless and homeless for a month (at the end of which he magically remains well-groomed and non-smelly), spending time volunteering in an Ecuador village (a sore spot for Jason, as his father died while in Ecuador), etc. Along the way, he befriends a dying girl (Abigail Breslin) and falls in love with her mother (Ali Hillis).
Each task leads to a specific, abstract gift: "the gift of family," "the gift of gratitude," and so on. ("The gift of problems" seems like a lousy gift. You can't even return one without a receipt!) The whole thing's so contrived that Jason remains a dunderhead until the plot suddenly demands he not be one, which is why he'll use-and-lose someone's kindness in one scene, then discover his heart of gold the next.
It's all so broad and maudlin that the dramatic scenes have a reverse effect - with every super-serious moment, all we can do is laugh. Cheryl McKay's screenplay depends entirely on the hackneyed and the contrived, to insane extremes. When Jason learns he must fly coach, not first class, of course he will wind up in between the crying baby and a fat guy sleeping on his shoulder. When the dying girl speaks, it is not with the words of a real girl, but of a movie character, the Little Darling Who's Wise Beyond Her Years. (God hand-paints the wings of every butterfly, she informs Jason in one faux-heartfelt moment.)
In fact, the dialogue all over is strained and clumsy, pumping in exposition when none is needed, forcing characters to give speeches no human would ever say. But her pacing is even worse. We trod very slowly through the first few "gifts," but once the pattern is established, we race through the rest as if to say, "Oh, those follow-up lessons, they don't really matter, as long as we see Jason's now a nice guy now." (Actually, that's actually a line of dialogue: one character tells Jason, "you're a different person now." Wow.)
And what's the deal with the kidnapping subplot? Jason is sent to Ecuador to confront bad memories and to learn family secrets. Fine. But then he's whisked away to spend weeks as the prisoner of drug runners. Dramatic, sure, but once it's over and Jason's back in America, it's as if the whole affair never happened. You'd think being beaten and starved by brutal criminals would leave a mark on a guy. But there's not a scratch - physically or mentally.
Of course, this is a movie that tosses us a dying kid because it doesn't know how to achieve any emotional impact the honest way. Director Michael O. Sajbel (whose "One Night with the King" was equally ungainly) fumbles his way through every scene, while his cast fails to engage the viewer in any way. (Even vets like Gardner, Bill Cobbs, Brian Dennehy, and Lee Meriwether can't make anything out the material, while Breslin, so charming elsewhere, is stuck in a role so hideous, her presence can't help in any way.)
The finale seems to negate all the messages of the movie, and offers up one that's so ugly in its worldview that it borders on offensive. (Spoiler alert! as they say.) Jason's prize for completing all tasks is a big check for $100 million. (Yes, they print up a cashier's check for the full amount so Jason can hold it and we can all see it, because that's how this movie works.) He then donates all that cash to build a memorial hospital for dying kids in the girl's name. After he does, it's revealed, "Brewster's Millions"-style, that Jason passed the final test and will receive "The Ultimate Gift," which turns out to be billions of dollars. And suddenly everything's great for Jason.
Um, hey, how about this instead: you make an inspirational movie about healing and growth, and at the end, the gift is something internal, like being nice to people or not being a jackass anymore. That's a message worth hearing. Having your hero wind up a billionaire suggests we should all do good things solely in the hope of landing a monetary reward. Ugh.
I don't think that was the movie's intent, of course, but still. How utterly, hopelessly horrid. Then again, what would you expect? Here's a movie that forces people to learn lessons, instead of letting them figure things out. When Jason arrives at "the gift of giving," it's not because he realizes how important it is to help others - it's because he's told he has one month to give away a big stack of cash.
We're dealing with an overly lazy movie that preaches an overly lazy self-help process. "Since you're too stupid to work things out on your own, this is what you need to do" is essentially what Jim Stovall, the book's author and inventor of this twelve-gift process, is screaming at us through this movie. To punctuate this, each "gift" is recapped during the closing credits, as if we're taking a quiz at the end of a chapter. "Do you remember which task Jason had to accomplish to get the gift of laughter?"
It's "Self-Help: The Movie," and it stinks to high heaven.
Once again, Fox has only sent an advance screener for review, and not the actual DVD you would find in stores . What follows may not match the final retail version of the disc. Sorry, folks. Blame Fox.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer nicely captures the rich textures of the film's surprisingly solid cinematography. For a low budget production, it sure looks quite gorgeous.
The soundtrack, presented in Dolby 5.1, is slightly problematic, with the music and sound effects mixed in at a distractingly higher volume than the dialogue. It's one of those movies that'll leave you constantly adjusting your volume control. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Before you can watch the movie, you must first sit through a brief (one minute) introduction from Stovall himself, who reveals the entire project to be a giant commercial for his supply of inspirational projects. Wouldn't your family sure enjoy the Ultimate Gift Experience Kit? It's on sale now on his website. Hurry!
Stovall also informs you that the movie is accompanied by an optional audio track with narration for the visually impaired. (Stovall himself is blind.) A nice touch, but note that the English subtitles are dialogue-only, and not for the hearing impaired. Inclusion only goes so far, apparently.
"Behind the Scenes of The Ultimate Gift" (12:00) is sub-average EPK filler. Everyone's great, the story's great, the director's great, blah blah. (Fuller calls his character "multilayered." Oh, sweet delusion.) It's not "behind the scenes." It's "talking heads praise each other."
"Leave a Legacy" (2:59) finds Bill Cobbs telling you that "you don't have to be wealthy to make a difference." He then recaps the lives of a few philanthropists who made a difference... by giving money. Turns out it's a commercial for Leave a Legacy (the phrase is apparently a registered trademark), which will help you learn how to include the charity of your choice in your will and then brag about it online. The message here, I assume, is: what good is being charitable if nobody knows you're doing it? Oh, and: can Leave a Legacy have a cut of that charity pie?
"Live the Ultimate Gift" (3:02) is a big horkin' commercial for the Ultimate Gift Experience Kit. Hey! I'm an imbecile who doesn't know how to let my family know I love them and needs some sort of fill-in-the-blanks guide to shove me in the right direction. Oh, thank you, Ultimate Gift Experience Kit!
The music video for Sara Groves' "Something Changed" (3:56) combines simple performance footage with clips from the movie, while the video for Ed Goggin's "Legacy" (4:37) is all movie clips, focusing on the "gift recap" bits from the closing credits. At least we're not asked to buy anything. Except the soundtrack album.
The film's trailer, a "sneak peek" at "The Redemption of Sarah Cain," and a set of trailers for other Fox Faith releases round out the disc. In addition, an ad for Fox Faith and the "Amazing Grace" trailer play as the disc loads; you can skip them if you choose.
Sappy and shallow and rotten all the way to the core, "The Ultimate Gift" fakes and fudges its way through prefab spiritual genericness while delivering shoddy storytelling all the while, only to leave us with a big fat commercial for the Jim Stovall line of inspirational merchandise. Skip It.