One expects going into a Fox Faith release to be inundated with a heightened sense of melodrama. After all, how better to present messages of hope and love than to mix it with tears and broad depictions of failure and success? "The Ultimate Gift" should be approached with an eye toward expecting the obvious. Only then do the life lessons have a fighting chance to sink in.Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller, "Charmed") is a lazy trust fund brat with little sense of purpose to his life. When his tycoon grandfather Red (James Garner) passes away, his lecherous family claws away at the fortune, but Red saves his greatest gift for Jason. Through his attorney (Bill Cobbs), Red arranges a series of challenges for Jason, sending him around the globe in an effort to get the young man to better appreciate people and give to the world around him.
"Soapy, doofy, but has a huge heart"
"Ultimate Gift" is adapted from the best-selling novel by Jim Stovall, whose story of personal inventory was intended to instill selflessness in people. In movie form, "Gift" won't have that type of reach, but it's not for lack of trying. It's a commendable production that sets lofty goals for itself, yet the film doesn't always have the tools to accomplish everything it sets out to.
Think of "Gift" as "Brewster's Millions," but without the comedy and with more focus paid to issues of the soul. In trying to cinematically cover this idea of the "12 Gifts" that help people connect, writer Cheryl McKay overworks the plot to fold all the messages into a single fluffy feature film. The story of Jason facing his empty existence for the first time is a persuasive one, and is executed well by director Michael O. Sajbel ("One Night with the King"), but there's inconsistency in the storytelling that constipates the overall objective of the piece.
A prime example is located in Jason's trip to Ecuador. Sent by Red to help refurbish an ailing library, the movie takes a dark turn when Jason, on a search to uncover the mystery surrounding his father's death, finds himself kidnapped and imprisoned by drug lords (yes, you read that right). Now, by this point, Fuller has demonstrated a limitation to his acting abilities, and when Sajbel pastes a fake beard on the actor and turns the film into a miniature version of "Midnight Express," it's clear "Gift" has blown way off course.
The film is much more comfortable with sensitive ambitions, such as Jason's relationship with Emily (Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine"), a leukemia-stricken child, and her single mother, Alexia (Ali Hills, "Must Love Dogs"). This subplot best expands on the message of redemption, and slips in that critical push towards faith (after all, that's why we're here) with a good deal of grace. Here, I could clearly understand Stovall's objective, and enjoyed the results in McKay's script, which dives headfirst into soap opera overtones, but not undeservedly, politely inviting the audience to emote with the characters and feel Jason's transformation into a person of moral integrity.As "Gift" winds down, it doesn't pull many punches. The film turns into a tear-jerker, polishing off the character arcs with some sudsy moves intended to send the audience out on a cloud of hope. As much as it had the potential to be, I never found "Ultimate Gift" to be very pushy or distant, and while I might not subscribe to Stovall's teachings, I respect their intent, and this movie's efforts to embody them for the silver screen.
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originally posted: 03/09/07 16:18:05