Friday, March 09, 2007

TOPIC: Good casting is true present in entertaining `Ultimate Gift'
Orlando Sentinel

If you ever wonder why we still call them "movie stars,'' look no further than The Ultimate Gift. It's a parable, a slight movie about a poor rich boy who has to learn the meaning of work, thrift, selflessness and faith from his richer-and-deader-than-Midas grandfather. Casting the right dead grandfather and "names'' in some supporting roles never paid off better.
This latest and most entertaining offering from Fox Faith, the religious-themed arm of 20th Century Fox, has James Garner as the charming old man whom his greedy, mean-spirited relatives watch on video as he tells them what he's willed to them. Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum) is the crotchety old attorney presiding over this will reading. Lee Meriwether (Barnaby Jones) is his longtime assistant. And after grandpa's dispensed with his other heirs, he gets around to announcing a series of tests for his estranged, spendthrift grandson, Jason (Drew Fuller), all leading up to The Ultimate Gift. The 30-ish jerk Jason is packed off to spend time with Gus, an old Texas pal of grandpa's.
If you've ever needed to pass life lessons on to a ne'er-do-well, you could do a lot worse than Brian Dennehy. He does more with a wry shake of the head than most actors can manage in a soliloquy. One last casting coup -- the sickly little girl who must teach Jason selflessness and faith? She's Abigail Breslin, the Oscar-nominated pageant dreamer of Little Miss Sunshine, much more interesting here.
The movie sends Jason on a series of executor-monitored quests -- to work on a ranch, give up all his money and possessions to see who his ``true'' friends are, to South America where his father died, to learn the lessons grandpa, who wasn't on speaking terms with him, didn't get around to teaching him. "I made a lot of mistakes with you,'' grandpa Garner says. "The only way to make it up to you is to not give you anything."
It's enough that Garner, Breslin, Cobbs and especially Dennehy show up in this. They class up the movie, and while a little more sass would've made Garner's character more memorable, it's enough that he brings a couple of generations of good will to the part. Fuller is perfectly obnoxious as Jason, but never a caricature.
You get the sense that this Michael O. Sajbel film -- he also did the passable religious epic One Night With the King -- spent its money wisely. Faking Texas and Ecuador in North Carolina (where this was filmed) saved cash. Who cares if their ''jungle'' is just trees covered in North Carolina kudzu? They used what they saved there for cast and soundtrack songs. B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline underscore the action.
The faith element here is kind of shoe-horned into the last act of the movie. But The Ultimate Gift manages to be funny and moving, and several steps above the Hallmark Channel pabulum that Fox Faith has mostly rolled out up until now.

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