Based on the book by Jim Stovall, The Ultimate Gift was a minor hit when it was released at the height of Bush-era malaise, a simplistic drama that promoted good-hearted American values—the kind rooted in Evangelicalism, capitalism, and spurious acts of “charity”—and pandered to Red-staters and right-wingers with aggressive fortitude. Because everything needs a sequel these days, Stovall penned a second book, The Ultimate Life, which director Michael J. Landon has turned into a film of its own, though it’s the same bland, sub-made-for-TV hogwash as its predecessor.
The story concerns former rich-kid playboy Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), who in the previous film took over his deceased grandfather’s multibillion dollar trust after undergoing a series of moralistic “tests” that transformed him into one of those benevolent millionaires we’re ostensibly meant to love. After Jason’s family sues him for control of the trust, his attorney suggests that he read his grandfather’s journal for guidance. From there, we’re treated via flashback to the saga of Red Stevens (Drew Waters), a Depression-era laborer whose dreams of being rich lead him to the oil fields of Texas where he earns billions. Jason, upon finishing the journal, is taught another valuable lesson about the importance of money (or maybe it’s family? Working hard?) and everyone goes home happy.
Though the movie doesn’t outwardly proselytize, its thinly veiled message of social conservatism and religious affirmations is nevertheless presented as the pathway to an ideal life, delivered with all the predigested sentimentality of a Hallmark card. This is familiar territory for Landon, who’s directed numerous films about Christian faith that have tried and failed to reach a wider (i.e. secular) audience, largely for the 20th Century Fox subsidiary, Fox Faith. To his credit, he serves the material dutifully: He understands the wants of his target audience, and his actors hit the script’s various platitudes with obvious, albeit graceless, authority. Of course, therein lays the problem. The moral grandstanding that accompanies such deft handling of Christian idealism automatically alienates anyone who isn’t a Christian idealist, leaving no room for an audience other than the one for which it’s intended. The film is therefore a success and a failure at the same time, an idle cause for cinema and religion alike.