Saying that Michael O. Sajbel’s The Ultimate Gift is the best thing to come from FoxFaith Films does the film a disservice—so much classier and better made is it than anything else that’s come out under their imprint. That’s not to say that it’s a great movie. It’s hardly that. It’s old-fashioned, driven by clichés, has an annoying TV-movie-like score, and owes more than a little to the Lloyd C. Douglas religious (with a dose of mysticism) novels of an earlier era (especially his twice filmed—in 1935 and 1954—1929 book Magnificent Obsession), probably by way of the similarly themed Catherine Ryan Hyde 1999 tome Pay It Forward (filmed in 2000). The movie is not deep by any stretch of the imagination. It has one egregiously wrong-headed sequence, and its altogether too contrived assault on the tear ducts near the end is apt to make you grit your teeth if you’re not already a fan of the self-published source book by Jim Stovall.
However, the overall film is a fairly pleasurable experience. It’s nicely crafted by director Sabjel (a real surprise after One Night with the King (2006)), and blessed with a supporting cast that includes Bill Cobbs, Lee Meriwether (yes, Catwoman from the frankly dreadful 1966 feature version of the Adam West Batman TV series), James Garner, Brian Dennehy and Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin. This undeniably helps. But what most sells the film is its air of sincerity. Unlike the appalling Michael Landon Jr. FoxFaith efforts (Love’s Abiding Joy (2006) and The Last Sin Eater (2007)) or the utterly bizarre, haphazard and just plain screwy Thr3e (2007), this feels like a movie made by a group of people who actually believe in its message—and who are comfortable enough in their personal faiths that they feel no need to trot out God every few minutes.
The setup is simple: Card-carrying wastrel Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller, TV’s Charmed) gets a shot at his late grandfather’s (James Garner) massive fortune if he submits to a series of tests outlined by the dying man in his video will. (This isn’t a new device. It was used back in 1934 in the George Arliss vehicle The Last Gentleman and in the 1978 version of The Cat and the Canary—only then the will was on film. In any case, the video will allowed Garner to do his scenes in one day.) The tests—leading to the ultimate gift—are really gifts in and of themselves (the film beats you over the head with this during the ending credits) that transform the callow Jason into a real human being. Apart from a patch of cheesy melodrama when Jason gets captured by Ecuadorian drug lords (oh, please), this premise works quite well within its limited aims—by dealing from an admittedly stacked deck. (Billionaire grandfathers, cute-as-a-button precocious kids with leukemia and attractive available moms just don’t figure much in every day life for most of us.)
The performances are generally good, especially from the old pros and Ali Hillis (Must Love Dogs). Little Miss Sunshine fans may be a little disappointed by Breslin’s role, which sometimes seems to consist too much of staring off into space and contemplating eternity, but she handles it well. The bottom line is that The Ultimate Gift is a nice little movie that I’m not sorry I saw, but would never see a second time. That said, I’d have no trouble recommending it to someone looking for a family film with a good message and a subdued dose of religion. Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke