Of the pictures thus far released by Fox Faith, the newly-active arm of the studio that aims its product at the Christian family trade, this is certainly the best. To be sure, that’s not saying much—the two earlier efforts were “Thr3e” and “The Last Sin Eater.” But while it’s certainly no masterpiece, “The Ultimate Gift” is about the quality of a run-of-the-mill Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie. It’s cloying and calculating, but as such maudlin tearjerkers go, it’s a fair example of the genre. At least it won’t make you retch, except maybe at the end.
The tale’s about Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), a spoiled rich kid who’s given a heavily-plotted inheritance by his estranged grandfather. He’s assigned a series of tasks to perform, tasks that teach him what’s really important in life—work, friends, family—while bringing him the love of a good woman and her terminally-ill daughter. It does go on too long—nearly two hours—and is burdened with a weak performance by Fuller as the callow guy who learns his lesson and an ending that abruptly wallows in religious inspiration after keeping that topic very low-key for more than an hour and a half. The emphasis on big bucks is also more than a little unseemly in this context—at least to one who finds the very idea of a “prosperity gospel” repugnant.
But the picture benefits from the presence of some veteran actors—Brian Dennehy as a Texas rancher, James Garner as the dead grandfather (who keeps reappearing via DVD to offer sage remarks), and Bill Cobbs (as the deceased’s lawyer). They may all be coasting here (under Michael Sajbel’s sluggish direction), but they coast pretty well. Abigail Breslin (of “Little Miss Sunshine”) appears as the little sick girl, but she’s less engaging this time around, and Ali Hillis, as her mom (and Fuller’s eventual love interest) is like a blander Hope Davis. And though technically the picture’s okay, we really didn’t need the repeat footage played over the final credit crawls. Or Mark McKenzie’s pushy score (and the irritating selection of songs that accompany it).
So as far as these family-friendly dramedies go, “The Ultimate Gift” isn’t the worst of the lot. But it’s still far from good: if one learns by suffering, as grandpa keeps saying here, this movie offers a good deal of instruction.