The Ultimate Gift (2006)

2007-03-09 (Limited release)

I’m free from your spell.

And now that it’s over,

All I can do is wish you well.

— “The Thrill is Gone”

This past weekend, FoxFaith Movies released The Ultimate Gift. Most filmgoers heard nothing about this title: opening in just over 800 theaters, it earned about $1,241,079, about $1500 a screen. Compare that to, say, the whopping $22,844 per theater made by 300 (which also showed up in more than 3000 theaters), and you see the problem.

Or not. You might guess that FoxFaith, given its name and commercial tagline (“Movies you can believe in”), is less interested in making huge profits than in delivering content of a certain sort to a certain segment of viewers. Indeed, the studio website lays out parameters, that a FoxFaith title must be “morally driven, family-friendly programming,” with “overt Christian Content or… derived from the work of Christian author.” Aside from approving older titles (It’s a Wonderful Life) or inking distribution deals (DVD rights for The Passion of the Christ), the company also offers movies based on Bible stories, such as Michael O. Sajbel’s One Night with the King, or on plainly Christian texts, The Last Sin Eater (book by Francine Rivers) and Reverend T.D. Jakes’ Woman Thou Art Loosed.

All this does not mean, however, that losing money will always be part of the FoxFaith project.

The Ultimate Gift, also directed by Sajbel, suggests that Christian content and framing can be just as crass and formulaic as secular efforts. A redemption story with churchy trappings and a fondness for stereotypes, it tracks the lessons-learning of 24-year-old wastrel Jason (Drew Fuller), who pursues a “gift” promised by his recently deceased grandfather Red (James Garner). This pursuit takes the form a series of tasks. Incidentally, as Red was a billionaire, leads to a fortune, with which, according to formula, Jason will no doubt continue to do good work and not turn back into his less worthy previous activities. Because once a lesson is learned in the FoxFaith universe, it stays that way.

Jason is certainly in need of an education. A spoiled, trust fund baby with a penchant for parties and blond airheady girls, he arrives late for Red’s funeral, then complains at the reading of the will. In this last he takes a cue from his blond airheady mother and Red’s widowed daughter-in-law, Sarah (Donna Cherry), accused in the will of having a “choice of male companionship [that] is vast and varied.” Though he’s arrogant, Jason is also greedy, which makes him the ideal candidate for Red’s salvation plan: because he believes the “gift” is financial, he takes up the quest with a vengeance.

This process is orchestrated variously. Red appears regularly during this process from beyond the grave in the form of videotapes. At the same time, his directions are carried out by various minions, including the wise estate executor Hamilton (Bill Cobbs) and the wise super-rich rancher Gus (Brian Dennehy). The former explains each task as it comes. The latter arranges the first task, that is, setting a lot of fence posts so Jason might experience the rewards of manual labor. On the day that Jason leaves the ranch, he hasn’t precisely set every fence post along what seems an endless horizon. But Gus declares his lesson learned (for one thing, he’s stopped smoking cigarettes) and ferries him to the airport, leaving on that horizon a replacement worker, an anonymous Hispanic-looking ranch hand, thus initiating the film’s general habit of not naming or granting much in the way of dialogue to secondary, lesson-embodying characters.

Back in the city, Jason learns another lesson: he’s now out of credit. When, at the end of a fancy restaurant meal, he discovers his credit line is closed, he asks his ostensible girlfriend Caitlin (Mircea Monroe) to pay. Though she has previously encouraged him to pursue the “gift,” also imagining it to be money, now she cries and leaves without doing paying, then promptly replaces Jason. He spends a minute ruing this loss (he’s picked up by cops when he goes over her security gate to observe her in a bed with the new guy), then finds himself homeless and alone.

This condition is illustrated by his arguments with his mother (who refuses to let him stay with her, as she’s entertaining a new sex partner) and with an anonymous “bum” (Tom Conder) over a park bench. (His sense of loss is underlined by the soundtrack choice: “The Thrill is Gone.”) By the time Jason meets adorable 10-year-old mini-goth girl Emily (Abigail Breslin), he’s more than ready to share a picnic lunch with her and her mother Alexia (Ali Hillis), also blond but less airheady and moneygrubbing than Caitlin. Emily’s dark lipstick and wig don’t much hide the fact that she’s dying of leukemia, but she and Alexia make time to bestow on Jason his greatest lessons. “I plan on knowing Jason for the rest of my life,” Emily announces, part promise and part portent. And with that, as he’s walking away from her in a completely selfish moment, she slaps a finger-made “L” sign on her forehead. He is, indeed, a loser, but she’ll fix that.

Jason soon and inevitably falls in love with Emily (and yes, Alexia, with Emily’s pushing), who worries in the hospital chapel about whether Jesus is waiting for her in heaven. “I think about time,” she says, her little lip trembling, and, “There’s something basically unfair about a person dying.” She is, of course, an incredibly wise child (and well played by Breslin), but still, Jason has to follow up on some boy details before he can get hold of his gift.

And so he takes a brief detour to find his own “roots,” that is, what happened to his long-ago mysteriously-disappeared father. This search takes him to Ecuador, of all places, where his dad Jack (D. David Morin, seen in flashbacks) died doing his own kind of good work, that is, building a library for a teeny, impoverished mountain village. While he’s completing the library, Jason runs afoul of a squad of gun-toting Ecuadorian drug dealers: they beat and imprison Jason, alongside his helpful “guide,” yet another anonymous character he calls “Amigo.” When he has a chance to escape, Jason won’t leave without the injured “Amigo,” even though this means being shot at by the bad guys. Apparently, this violence is key to Jason’s development, for his rescue of “Amigo” cuts directly to his triumphant return to the States.

The plot details here are only interesting so far as they demonstrate a formula. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not so far off from the formula that drives last weekend’s boffo box office winner, 300. In both cases, all plot events, visual compositions, and supporting others are in place to redeem, enlighten, and celebrate the straight white male protagonist. His attainment of his “ultimate gift” — whether that be something so mundane as money, so spiritual as selflessness, or so arcane as “history” — means that he is, emphatically and predictably, not a loser.

RATING 4 / 10