'The Ultimate Gift'

Fox Faith unwraps a sincere effort

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With a cast that includes James Garner, Brian Dennehy and Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin, there is nothing wrong with "The Ultimate Gift" ... except perhaps its release strategy.

Drew Fuller learns the value of hard work from Brian Dennehy in "The Ultimate Gift."
Click photo for larger image.

'The Ultimate Gift'

Starring: Drew Fuller, James Garner, Abigail Breslin.
Director: Michael O. Sajbel.
Rating: PG for thematic elements, some violence and language.
Web site: www.theultimategift.com

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It would fit perfectly on television, perhaps at Thanksgiving, when its central question about wealth and happiness would resonate with audiences. It is, to be sure, designed to wring tears out of viewers and leave them a little sadder but wiser.

With its PG rating and blend of faces old (Garner, Dennehy, Bill Cobbs, Lee Meriwether) and new (Breslin, "Charmed" cutie Drew Fuller), it almost seems like a throwback to a 1970s TV movie. However, it arrives in theaters today, courtesy of Fox Faith, and it takes a ludicrous detour but never veers from its PG-rated, spiritual path.

"The Ultimate Gift," based on the Jim Stovall novel of the same name, is about a wealthy businessman who tries to teach his spoiled grandson an important lesson -- from beyond the grave.

The movie opens with the news that Red Stevens (Garner), a self-made billionaire, has died. When his greedy, bickering family descends for the funeral and reading of the will, grandson Jason (Fuller) learns that Red has something special in mind -- and it's not a check with six zeroes.

Addressing Jason via a DVD he recorded before his death, Red wants to lead the young man through a series of carefully choreographed steps. Impatient, impudent Jason reluctantly begins the mysterious journey that will take him to improbable places, from a Texas cattle ranch to a park bench normally occupied by a homeless man.

After all, Red believed, "You don't begin to live until you've lost everything." Red strips Jason of his usual crutches and fair-weather friends and instructs him about such subjects as giving, gratitude and dreaming.

Along the way, Jason encounters a rancher from Red's past, played by Dennehy, and a single mother and her daughter, portrayed by Ali Hillis and Breslin, who dresses like a fashion-forward Goth. It's Breslin's character of Emily who holds the key to many of Jason's lessons and your tear ducts.

"The Ultimate Gift," directed by Michael O. Sajbel and adapted by Cheryl McKay, goes literally and figuratively off course when Jason ends up in a foreign country. It feels phony compared to the rest of the movie, and Fuller's beard, which sprouts over a couple of weeks, looks like a Halloween accessory that was glued on.

Religion played a much more obvious role in "The Last Sin Eater," the previous movie in the Fox Faith series. Here, the notion of heaven and the importance of having a place to pray -- or sit in contemplative silence -- is more seamlessly inserted into the story.

You don't need to regularly worship to join Jason on his journey as he learns about a series of gifts. You probably will guess the end, but that doesn't diminish the inherent sincerity of the movie.

As she did in "Signs" in 2002, Breslin makes the most of a small but crucial role, without being cloying or overly cute. And that is a gift in its own way.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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