Cheryl McKay - Screenplay
Jim Stovall - Book
Drew Fuller - Jason Stevens
James Garner - Red Stevens
Ali Hillis - Alexia
Abigail Breslin - Emily
Lee Meriwether - Miss Hastings
Brian Dennehy - Gus
Mircea Monroe - Caitlin
Donna Cherry - Sarah Stevens
D. David Morin - Jack Stephens
Bill Cobbs - Ted Hamilton
In trying to come up with the moral premise of The Ultimate Gift (TUG) I didn’t have to think very long. The dialogue wants to tell you, over, and over, and over, and over. If you like stories where you have to figure things out; if you like a mystery; if you want to see the protagonist learn things on his or her own the way you are forced to learn on your own, then TUG is not for you.
Jason Stevens is a trust fund baby, who has never worked a day in his life, and money has always been there for him. It is probably true that the rest of his aunts and uncles, all greedy, selfish people, were raised the same. Jason’s grandfather, Red Stevens, dies and leaves most of the aunts and uncles nothing. For a reason that comes off as manipulated, Red thinks that Jason is redeemable, whereas the rest of his related humanity is not. So, Red leaves a series of video messages and assignments for Jason to complete, hoping that Jason will learn to reject vanity and the self-absorbed playboy life, and become a charitable, generous, self-less community icon. And what happens? Just that. After the trailer there is nothing more to discover. Jason acts the brat, but his greed forces him to work, respect money, make a true friend, value learning, etc.-times 12, until at the end of the movie, his grandfather's attorney rewards him with control of the two-billion dollar estate.
MORAL PREMISE NO. 1
It would be a good challenge to take just one of Christ’s parables (say the Rich Young Ruler) and make a good movie about how through natural, organic circumstances the Rich Young Ruler comes to learn the importance of giving and not hording his wealth. People change values slowly, VERY slowly, and it would take 120-minutes just to reveal, in a realistic, identifiable, organic way, how such a person would just BEGIN to change; yet, at the end, still have weaknesses and imperfections to work on, just as we all do.
But in TUG the writers take 12 parables, and in 114 minutes try to convince us that a 22 year old greedy, playboy can totally change from black to white in 12 different character traits, and at the end of the movie have no faults, no worries, all the money in the world, a beautiful wife, and have the respect of local banks and business authorities to demand that they will pro-bono their time and money to create his pet project…altruistic as the project may seem. If I hadn't been watching the movie for my radio program I would have turned it off and washed the dishes.
It is Jason’s vanity and greed that drives him to pursue his grandfather's will, but he's resentful and angry at having to play the game. Vanity, greed, and their natural consequencies of bitterness and anger, are also evident (overly so) in Jason's aunts and uncles. After having been motivated (by greed) to find a true friend, Jason recognizes (in a Moment of Grace, that occurs before a statue of Jesus’ outstretched arms) that his young friend, Emily, is dying of leukemia. From then on Jason tries to use the wealth he’s been given to help Emily and others survive their pain and suffering. So, the true moral premise of the movie can be stated this way:
So, here’s a movie, again with a true moral premise.Greed leads to resentment and disrespect; but
Generosity leads to love and honor.
But TUG is an example of how a true moral premise cannot save a story from dismal performance at the box office, even though the book upon which it was based sold 3 million copies. Why? Because, as another reviewer mentioned, the one gift that the filmmakers did not get, was the gift of good narrative filmmaking.
First, however, there are some things the filmmakers did right. The photography is good, and they lined up an all star cast who do well in their roles.
But there are fundamental narrative problems with TUG. Let me describe three.
1. The first cardnial rule of narrative filmmaking is to show, don't tell. But TUG is nearly all words. It is an illustrated book. The sound track alone tells the story. The pictures are not needed. In a well conceived film the movie will allow the audience to experience what the protagonist experiences as both are led organically to some conclusion. But in dialogue, TUG tells the audience exactly what is to be understood and believed predominantly through the presence of Red Steven's video messages. It's a contrivance that works in the book because we have no visuals, and we need to explain motivations and things that cannot be shown. Novels are about thoughts -- plays are about words -- and movies are about pictures. When a movie uses too many words to tell the story, the visuals become impotent. Without the Red Stevens scenes we might have seen how Jason figures out the truth on his own, thus allowing the audience to make the message their own. Red's explanations were a little like having someone like me whispering into your ear all through a movie about what the movie is trying to say. You'd want to smack me in the puss, and tell me to shut up, and that's exactly what I wanted to tell the filmmakers.
2. There is a near absence of metaphors in this film, and metaphors are the lifeblood of visual story telling. There are two basic kinds of moral communications: visual tropes (narrative allegories and metaphors) and propositional statements (what you find in a catechism, e.g. "Do good unto others as you would have them do unto you"). A good film will give the protagonist a physical goal that is really a metaphor for what the movie, at a psychological level, is really about. Now, TUG does have one on-going analogy that sort of works—Red Stevens is analogous to God who teaches his children (i.e. "us" represented by Jason) hard lessons through trials and suffering. Jason, at first, rejects the lessons and tries to return to his bitterness and resentment. But finally he embraces the necessity of the trials for the sake of obtaining the "ultimate gift." In Jason's eyes that ultimate gift is initially the money, and eventually the gift is the love he needs to express by using the money for charitable purposes. But underlying that analogy, the real ultimate gift is the gift of God's charity that we receive in salvation and heaven provided we joyfully submit to God's trials and sufferings.
But I say the analogy only "sort of works." Analogies are figures of speech (in this case visual tropes) that parallel dissimilar story elements designed to help the reader or audience to organically internalize, synthesize and assimilate a truth. A analogy, simile or metaphor are the linguistic opposites of TUB's didactic delivery. Jason is continually being preached to. Thus, in TUB we are not allowed to "discover" truth, but rather we are hit over the head by it. Jason must be told several dozen times that the hard lessons he is learning are each gifts, designed to redeem him. He is rarely given a chance to figure this out by himself, and thus the message come off more like preaching than self-discovery.
3. The flow of the story is mostly manipulative and not natural. Another cardinal rule of good storytelling is that the fiction writer can allow one overt jump in logic or break in the natural order of things, and not lose the audience. In the movie version of TUG there is more than one of these jumps and each seems coincidental for the convenience of the writer. The first is the introduction of Emily into Jason's life. It occurs as Jason is living on a park bench, and young Emily spontaneously (and without good motivation) engages him in pointed conversation. This happens again, in another scene, when Emily's mother, Alexia, sets up a picnic a few feet away from Jason's park bench. It happens a third time, when Jason finds Alexia's stolen purse in a park trash bin, and it just so happens that her unpaid bills are wadded up in the purse, and it just so happens that he goes to the hospital to look for them, instead of walking to her home, and ALL of this is wrapped up in the melodramatic coincidence that Emily is dying of leukemia. A similar sort of coincidence is that Jason's overly greedy and sexed-up girlfriend looks like trash when compared to the winsome and wholesome Alexia. There are many such situations in this story that play to the desire of the writer to paint a plot and protagonist that are without any blemish or need of on-going redemption. Altogether it will be hard for the audience to identify with Jason, root for his success, or feel any compassion for him. And, in the end, who really cares about a perfect young man who is given 2 billion dollars to control? It's far too close to the heretical "heath and wealth" Gospel.
A SECOND MORAL PREMISE
All of this suggests to me a second moral premise that is laid on top of the first. In part it is reinforced by the riches his aunts and uncles who continue to live out their selfish lives without much natural negative consequence, except for a lot of bickering and jealousy. And in Jason's story arc, the more perfect he becomes, the richer he gets, setting up this moral premise:
This moral premise is false, although, unfortunately, a great many people, including so-called Christians, hope and believe it to be true.
Vanity and greed lead to wealth; but
Moral perfection leads to obscene riches.