A few minutes into “The Ultimate Gift,” a sea of rigid black umbrellas shielding a funeral party from pouring Carolina rains parts to reveal a swaying pink umbrella. The young, pale girl beneath it puts it aside, closes her eyes and blissfully lifts her face upwards toward the downpour. The moment brims with the simple, extraordinary beauty the film wants us to find in every moment of life, to consider in our every decision.
But falling prey to tedious diatribes, truncated morals and a sputtering plotline, never again does “The Ultimate Gift” manage the authentic charm of that one moment.
The funeral is for Red Stevens, a self-made billionaire whose passing has brought every corner of the greedy Stevens clan together in hopes of taking home a chunk of his considerable inheritance. Besides his rich, ungrateful sons and their rich, ungrateful families, there’s also Red’s punky grandson, Jason (Drew Fuller, TV’s “Charmed”), who shows up characteristically late, with jeans, loud music and all.
The coffin is barely in the ground when the family meets with Red’s lawyer to witness the reading of his will. They all get money, land and entire oil companies, but still leave grumbling and dissatisfied. Bratty Jason, however, only gets instructions. His grandfather regrets spoiling him and making him incapable of doing work or appreciating life. For Jason to get his cut, Red decrees, he must perform a series of tasks involving manual labor, humility and even some interaction with other people.
The lessons “The Ultimate Gift” seeks to impart are clear, and even commendable: modesty and an earnest gratitude for the gifts of life. But following the funeral, the film goes to such lengths to hit us over the head with the evils of materialism and selfishness that it’s often difficult not to laugh. Jason’s rich playboy ways, for example, are almost a parody you might find on “Saturday Night Live.”
Dressed in the urban hipster’s bread and butter, Jason stalks the screen with a smug vanity worthy of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. But while emulating one of Hollywood’s most detestable personas may solidify Jason’s initial cold indifference, it does very little to humanize the inevitably reformed man we are supposed to love by the end of the film.
Even the plot ends up somewhat incapable of deciding whether or not he has learned his lesson. No sooner has a seemingly cordial Jason befriended young Emily, the wielder of that pink umbrella (recent Academy Award nominee Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) then he casts her aside, even while knowing that she is terminally ill.
Before we know it Jason is suddenly in Ecuador, still testy though supposedly wiser. A kidnapping by drug lords, mortal endangerment of peaceful villagers and an explanation of how libraries work subsequently follow for no apparent reason. Near the end, even as Emily’s innocent insecurities muster emotion, we’re still not sure if we want Jason to get this ultimate gift.
But then he does – or at least you think he does. The film’s initial wealth of charm is long depleted; the sparse moments of genuine grace and touching candor contributed by the superb Breslin are thoroughly effaced. And yet the film is still not over. This gift doesn’t stop giving long after its message has already been received.
The Ultimate Gift
At the Showcase and Quality 16
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars