As the self-absorbed grandson of billionaire oil baron Red Stevens, Jason Stevens lacks nothing—except purpose. But when the old tycoon dies and leaves behind an unorthodox will, Jason embarks on a journey that will yield an inheritance cash alone could never match.
Watching a video shot by his grandfather before his death, Jason learns that "the ultimate gift" awaits him—if he's willing to follow a series of cryptic instructions doled out by Granddad's best friend and lawyer, Mr. Hamilton, and in subsequent messages from Red himself. Jason balks, but his gold-digging girlfriend, Caitlin, convinces him to give it a go.
Jason's first task? Fly to Houston. There he's met by an old rancher friend of Red's named Gus. Per Gus' instructions, Jason finds himself digging fence-post holes in the middle of nowhere. Complaints commence, but Jason (who's never worked a day in his life) sticks with it, realizing he'll have to finish the job to claim his inheritance.
Other tests await when Jason returns—each designed by his grandfather to teach the value of work, money, family, friendship and gratitude, among other things. And during a stint of homelessness after Hamilton confiscates all his possessions, Jason meets two people who'll further alter his life trajectory: a young woman named Alexia and her grade school-aged daughter, Emily, who's dying of cancer.
With the help (and patience) of his new friends, Jason discovers there's more to life than money. And that money can be used to make life more for others.
In the final chapter of Red's character-development course, Jason is given $100 million. He uses it to create a state-of-the-art medical facility for families "experiencing severe health challenges." The movie's strong stewardship message implies that he has become someone who'll use his resources to benefit others—and that viewers should go and do likewise.
Among The Ultimate Gift's other (plentiful) positive themes are the many values Red attempts to communicate to Jason via videotape. He asks his grandson, "How can I give you something and not have it ruin you like your uncles and aunts?" Other messages praise problems ("Our lives should be lived not avoiding problems, but welcoming them as challenges") and learning from life's inevitable hard knocks ("Any process worth going through will get tougher before it gets easier. That's what makes learning a gift"). One of Red's last video missives speaks to the importance of having a dream: "You need to have a dream and act on it."
Under his grandfather's posthumous tutelage, Jason's character is transformed. Following a lazy start at his ranch job, Jason does good work. He uses his paycheck from that job to cover a medical bill for Alexia. At a Thanksgiving celebration with his greedy family, he suggests going around the table and saying something each person is thankful for.
One assignment takes Jason to a poor Ecuadorian village where his grandfather had a library built. Jason learns to repair and restock its books. And even though he's struggled to forgive his grandfather for a plane crash that killed his father (near that village), a friend of Red's tells Jason, "He had one desire and one desire alone: To ask your forgiveness."
The ever-precocious Emily, meanwhile, exhibits remarkable maturity, often putting her mother's needs above her own. As Alexia and Jason fall in love, Emily comments (accurately), "Even if you got nothing else out of the deal but her, you'd still be a huge winner." Alexia is on the brink of insolvency, but she's thankful for what she has. She challenges Jason's initial conviction that money is the answer to everything.
Alluding to her sexual activity in high school, Alexia describes how Emily's father abandoned her when she told him she was pregnant. That sets the stage for a brief reference to considering—and rejecting—the idea of abortion ("Emily is the best decision I ever made").
The film's central message about giving is a biblical one. Luke 12:33, Acts 20:35, 2 Corinthians 8:7, 2 Corinthians 9:7, James 2:14-17 and 1 John 3:16-18, among a host of other scriptures, all prod believers to share the wealth.
At Red's funeral, a pastor alludes to the old man's faith when he quotes Psalm 116:15: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." Another funeral quote from British writer Malcolm Muggeridge applies to Jason's journey: "Every happening, great or small, is a parable by which God speaks to us. The art of life is to get the message."
Emily seems to understand that message. Sitting in the hospital chapel in front of a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms, she asks Jason, "I wonder if He takes advance orders for my place. You know, up there." Her impending death has apparently yielded a relationship with God, and she's thinking about heaven. Jason asks her, "What do you think [heaven] is going to be like?" Emily responds, "Butterflies. Lots of butterflies." But she also tearfully admits, "I think there's something basically unfair about a person dying." Jason reassures her, "You know, I don't know much about God or Jesus, but I can promise you that those arms are meant for you."
While imprisoned by Ecuadorian drug lords, Jason's local guide (in an adjacent cell) communicates scraps of wisdom such as, "Neither love nor hate thy life. But what thou live, live well, however long or short may the heavens permit." Jason includes a church and worship center in his new family health facility plans. Jason and Alexia spend time together in the chapel where a priest is briefly visible kneeling in prayer.
Though they're never shown in bed, it's implied that Jason and Caitlin had a prior sexual relationship. When Jason's apartment is taken from him, he suggests moving in with her. When he gets it back, she kisses him, goes into the bedroom and commands him to follow in a few minutes. We see the tops of her shoulders in bra straps as she waits for him, but he doesn't take the bait.
Jason and Alexia's growing love never moves beyond a couple of kisses.
Jason's mother and Caitlin are shown in immodest, cleavage revealing outfits. Caitlin also wears a very short skirt. Someone's mistress is referenced. Red's will documents his disapproval of Jason's mom regularly taking new lovers.
Drug lords in the Ecuadorian jungle hold Jason and his guide at gun point. We hear the sounds of a man being beaten, then see him tied to a tree, unconscious. In an escape, Jason hits one of the thugs. In an intense sequence, Jason is manhandled and blindfolded by them, and he thinks he is going to be killed.
Gus uses an electric cattle prod to "motivate" Jason to get out of bed. Jason slaps two nephews who steal his smartphone. Jason also hits a hospital wall in frustration after Emily dies and tosses his cell phone onto the sidewalk when it quits working.
Crude or Profane Language
In his last video message, Red uses "h---" as an expletive. When he thinks he's about to be killed, Jason blurts what is probably part prayer, part exclamation: "Oh God, God, does anyone understand what I'm saying?" He also interjects "Screw you" twice and uses the abbreviation "BS" once. Emily's good-natured name-calling includes "loser" and "hoser."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Numerous scenes picture people drinking. Usually it's wine. Jason, in particular, has a glass at hand quite often. The drug dealers drink hard liquor straight from bottles (and are later shown passed out). Jason sips a stiff drink and makes a face. Soon after, his vision gets blurry.
Jason smokes cigarettes twice and asks Gus if they can stop at a store for more smokes. Hamilton puffs on a cigar. Mention is made of someone investing in "sin stocks": alcohol, tobacco and firearms. A family member jokingly asks Jason, "Are you on crack ... again?"
Other Negative Elements
Jason carelessly zips up to an airport entrance on a motorcycle with police in tow, suggesting he'd been riding recklessly and/or speeding. Red says of the IRS, "I hate those guys, in your pocket every step of the way."
An odd segment near the end of the film finds Hamilton showing Jason a videotape that includes images of him stealing public plants, stealing coins and panhandling. It's clear that what Jason did was illegal, but it's brushed aside and played off as one last weird prank on him by Hamilton before he receives his inheritance.
Movies that deliberately try to deliver a narrowly focused message or moral often fail. Their stories sometimes feel clunky and self-serving. The acting can be sketchy. And they can choose to wield a 10-pound sledge, when they really only need a 2-pound hammer. The Ultimate Gift doesn't always avoid these pitfalls, but it does manage to choose the right mallet.
Jason begins as a complete cad. We know he's going to be humbled, but the way it goes down doesn't strain credulity (apart from his Ecuadorian kidnapping, which feels like something out of MacGyver). Jason's budding friendship with Emily (even more so than his romance with Alexia) and his growing recognition of his grandfather's wisdom give the film a compelling emotional core.
As for content, language concerns in this PG film are sparse and its few sexual themes are subtle—and generally used to good purpose. Alcohol, on the other hand, isn't, and seems to be used merely as a kind of visual shorthand intended to remind us that we're dealing with wealthy people.
The Ultimate Gift is based on one-time Olympic weightlifter Jim Stovall's book. And it is backed by a host of for-profit, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations that, as The Ultimate Gift Web site puts it, are "helping to ensure that this story is told to as many audiences as possible." Among them: National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys, Once Upon a Family, The NonProfit Times and the Barnabas Foundation. In 2005, a press release from the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy stated that the organization would be creating an affiliation with The Ultimate Gift Experience to "use the story of The Ultimate Gift to promote philanthropy in North America’s not-for-profit health care institutions."
It's easy to see why so many groups and companies are rallying around a film such as this one, as it eloquently promotes selfless giving. As Mark Urman of film distribution company ThinkFilms told the Los Angeles Times, "While there has always been a great deal of philanthropy in the film business, this is a new iteration: relatively inexperienced people entrenched in another part of the industry making accomplished feature films. Rather than write a check, you can make a feature film exposing an ill or advancing things about human endeavor."
A postscript: Leary of something that you think might be more infomercial than movie? Every filmmaker on the planet has a purpose for his project and has a message to communicate. And while "partner support" can sometimes gum up the works, as it were, what the film says is more important than who says it. How much better to gather backing in order to deliver a positive message about living purposefully and using God's good gifts to serve others' needs, than to shun such ties and deliver the opposite.