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March 11, 2007 | Comments ()


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Really, You Shouldn't Have

The Ultimate Gift / John Williams

Film Reviews | March 11, 2007 | Comments ()


Reviewing Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale for the New York Times Book Review in 1983, Benjamin DeMott wrote, “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”

Assigned to review The Ultimate Gift, I find myself facing the opposite problem. There is no way that mere words on a page (or screen) could properly describe the experience of sitting through this movie — the spiritless acting, the hackneyed script, the unrelenting barrage of insults to one’s intelligence. No, it’s something you could only fully absorb by experiencing it firsthand, but I don’t recommend that. It’s difficult to imagine a worse movie being released this year, and that judgment comes from someone who held his nose and scarfed down Wild Hogs last week.

We start at the rain-drenched funeral of the mega-rich Red Stevens (James Garner), an event noisily crashed by his grandson, Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), who shows up mid-ceremony in a vintage car without a muffler. As he emerges from his ride and walks toward the gravesite contorting his boyish features into a disaffected sneer, it’s clear that Jared Leto, Carson Daly, and the lead singer of Maroon 5 weren’t available for the role, so we’re stuck with Fuller.

The next day, the family gathers in a conference room to hear the results of Red’s will. One by one, in a scene that would stand out as awful in even the most abysmal made-for-TV movie, they’re told by Red’s trusted lawyer, Mr. Hamilton (Bill Cobbs) that the deceased billionaire didn’t love, trust, or respect them enough to leave them anything. (They’re already stinking rich, but they want more.)

When they’ve all stormed out, only Jason remains, convinced that the old man has spurned him, too. But he learns, from a videotape that Red left behind, that he’s been bequeathed a series of gifts that will lead to the “ultimate gift.” The first step involves a trip to Houston, and Jason is hesitant to leave behind the life he has — including a giant loft with amazing views, a beautiful and shallow blonde girlfriend, and an utter lack of industry — to jump through his grandfather’s hoops. These opening scenes are so broadly drawn, with Jason making today’s gossip-rag heiresses look like grateful, grounded people, that whatever lessons he eventually learns are rendered unbelievable and meaningless.

His path through those lessons in a nutshell: He ends up going to Texas, for no convincing reason, where Gus (Brian Dennehy) teaches him the value of work by making him plant fence posts for a month. He returns home to find all of his material possessions gone, his limitless credit cards discontinued. He meets a girl named Emily (Abigail Breslin) and her mother, Alexia (Ali Hillis), in a park while he’s essentially homeless. He eventually learns Emily has leukemia. He goes to Ecuador, in the movie’s most ridiculous scenes (against stiff competition), to learn the real details of how his father died many years before. While there, he and a villager are kidnapped by drug runners and thrown into small cells long enough for the baby-faced Jason to grow a riotously unrealistic desert-island beard. He gets back home, devotes himself to Alexia, and eventually receives the financial windfall that Red intended him to have once his heart thawed. (Spoiler, but I think you’ll have guessed: Emily kicks it.) Jason uses his money to open a hospital for children, at which point he gets even more money in the form of full control of Red’s $2 billion estate.

It never really gets around to explicitly saying it, which is somewhat miraculous, but I think the point of The Ultimate Gift is that Jesus wants us to befriend sick children, sleep on park benches, and give away our money. And I’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound a lot like what Jesus would want. But there has to be a more dignified way to spread that gospel.

The Ultimate Gift is a Hallmark card adapted by Mitch Albom into a song that’s belted out by Celine Dion right after she watches a puppy get flattened by an ice cream truck. It’s emotionally fake, stylistically amateurish, and intellectually starved. If you cry toward the end of it — and you might — they will be the most undeserved tears you ever shed. The one time I felt myself welling up, I willed the water back into its ducts. By that point, the movie had firmly established itself as my enemy, and I wasn’t going to allow it even the smallest moral victory.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.


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