“The Ultimate Journey”

“Every happening great or small is a parable by which God speaks to us and the art of life is to get the message.” –Malcolm Muggeridge

Seems to be the season for movies that see themselves as a part of a larger mission (I’m looking at you, Evan Almighty), which carries with them the burden that we aren’t watching art unfold as much as a propaganda piece. Based on the best-selling novel by Jim Stovall, director Michael Sajbel brings us The Ultimate Gift. In a lot of ways, The Ultimate Gift could be seen as a more sincere re-imagining of Brewster’s Millions, since at their core, they have the same message.

“It’s amazing how far the fruit can fall from the tree.” –Miss Hastings (Lee Meriwether)

Billionaire Red Stevens (James Garner) dies and the vultures he calls family circle about ready to dine on his still cooling body. More interested in what they’d get from the will than in the passing of someone they supposedly loved, we’re hammered by the point that money—the love of it and the ease it provided—ruined them.

The only hopeful heir comes in the form of brat playboy, Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller). He’s told that he has been left a gift, something to help make up for how Red “ruined his life”, but he must complete a series of tests in order to receive it. So like the 12 tasks of Hercules, Jason Stevens sets about his quest of receiving a series of twelve gifts leading up to the ultimate gift: the gift of work, the gift of friends, the gift of money, the gift of problems, the gift of family, the gift of learning, the gift of laughter, the gift of gratitude, the gift of dreams, the gift of giving, the gift of a day, and the gift of love.

“Don’t be pathetic.” –Emily (Abigail Breslin)

Along the way, Jason encounters Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin as dying girl, Emily, and her mother, Alexia (Ali Hillis) as well as a number of life lessons. Like how friendship is a beautiful and unique form of love, providing a genuine opportunity for our need for intimacy to be met and serve as a protection against isolation and loneliness. That it is a treasure to be valued for its own sake. Or how we use money, rather than letting it use us, can be a form of spiritual formation. That giving is a way of organizing even the financial parts of our lives around life with God and can be a form of worship. How reprioritizing our spending habits acknowledging that all that we have comes from God and cultivates a spirit of gratitude.

“You don’t begin to live until you’ve lost everything.” –Red

The ultimate gift is a journey of learning, of discipleship, of forming one another in the way of Christ. The healing comes, even early in his journey, that the outstretched arms of Christ are meant for us. He just has to learn what it means to be a disciple. As author Robert Webber put it “discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.” The gift shapes Jason into the kind of man he should be as he learns to serve others, put himself in other’s situations, counts his blessings, values education, learns truth, and seeks forgiveness. With obedience to his grandfather’s tests comes the attitudes of peacemaking, endurance, respect, cooperation, and sacrifice. And like all journeys, it takes time. Experience takes a long time to gain. Learning takes a long time. Spiritual formation takes a long time.

“You need to come up with a dream, then act on it.” –Red

We’re often too weighted down and not free to dream rather than going through the motions of life. Sometimes it requires an end of self moment or as Jason confesses “Up until now, I’ve only existed. I’ve drifted through life thinking that was enough. And honestly, I don’t know if I have my own dream. But I do know I can help others fulfill theirs.” To realize that a dream has been provided to help people resist empty ways of life by becoming fully human in the way of Jesus, to learn what it means to love one another, and to join in his mission to bless the world. To be with people we love, who love each other. That is the ultimate gift.

The Ultimate Gift is one of those relentlessly heart-warming movies, sometimes so earnest it hurts (it even sums up the lessons for everyone during the credits). Aimed at its nebulous target audience known as the Christian market, Hollywood continues to struggle with how to reach them, stumbling onto a more intentional Disney-type product. The Ultimate Gift, though flawed, asks us to examine what sort of legacy we plan on leaving behind. Misters Stova’l and Sajbel leave us with one last gift to consider: the gift of a story.