A “Gift” and a “Bridge” two family films worth seeing
Remember those long mini-lectures your Grandpa used to deliver, often at Thanksgiving? That’s kind of how “The Ultimate Gift” feels. It plods a little, and it requires patience. But the intent and the material are so decent that it feels disrespectful to snicker too much. Despite spotty storytelling, uneven performances, and a pace that rivals a leisurely round of golf, “The Ultimate Gift” gives many a parent something often sought but rarely found in today’s film choices: a message movie that neither embarrasses or condescends, and has just enough good actors to make it feel better than the TV movie-of-the-week it was destined to be.
Red Stevens (the reliable James Garner) is an aging cattle and oil tycoon who has just died and cut most of his greedy relatives out of his will. To everyone’s surprise, especially his own, the will dictates that grandson Jason (TV’s “Charmed” channeling a young Rob Lowe) could inherit what his late grandpa promises to be “the ultimate gift,” but he must overcome a series of obstacles. A selfish young man who’s never had to work a day in his life, Jason is nonetheless curious (and a little suspicious) of his grandfather’s demands. In life they became estranged, and in death grandfather may still be trying to teach the grandson a lesson he doesn’t want to learn.
Jason goes along with the game, and receives instructions via a pre-recorded videotape. Red’s partner (Bill Cobbs) is the estate’s executor, and he and his assistant (Lee Merriweather-remember TV’s “Barnaby Jones”?) advise Jason while he learns the value of work on a cattle farm owned by a wise farmer (Brian Dennehy). Other life lessons are provided by experiences as diverse as spending time as a park bench bum and becoming a kidnapped prisoner in the jungles of Ecuador. Welcome surprises to be sure.
The centerpiece of the film is Jason’s serendipitous friendship with cute, precocious 10 year-old Emily (“Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin, who can’t help but brighten every scene) and her single Mom (A pretty but bland Ali Hillis). Jason’s most valuable lesson may be what he learns about love and friendship, and as so often happens in these films, something tragic will drive home the point.
While its homespun homilies and PG-rated script give the film a Sunday School quality, “The Ultimate Gift” never feels preachy or self-righteous. Even with its imperfections, it’s the type of film its audience will want to support. Amen.