Both a prequel and a sequel to 2007’s inspirational theatrical bomb (but DVD hit) “The Ultimate Gift,” “The Ultimate Life” once again soft-pedals gentle messages of Christian charity and family values destined to appeal strictly to the converted. Frequent faith-based filmmaker Michael Landon Jr. displays great determination, and even more folly, in his attempt to mount a “Giant”-sized family saga with the production values of “Sharknado.” Terminally dull result faces grim theatrical prospects on its way to endless Hallmark Channel reruns, where it will challenge even the most forgiving viewers to stay awake and alert throughout.
Picking up three years after the events of “Gift,” busy young mogul Jason Stevens (Logan Bartholomew, taking over for Drew Fuller) has hit a rough patch with g.f. Alexia (Ali Hillis), and only a thorough reading of the journals of his deceased billionaire grandfather, Red (James Garner, onscreen for less than a minute), can set him straight. Thus the bulk of the film unfolds in flashbacks charting how Red (primarily played by Drew Waters) went from rags to riches, and takes an awfully long time to deliver an awfully trite message: Money only matters if you have someone special to share it with.
Largely dismal thesping briefly perks up during an early stretch carried by appealing young performers Austin James as teenage Red and Abigail Mavity as his feisty love interest, Hanna. Unfortunately, after a strange detour into WWII (and a single battle scene that manages less verisimilitude than anything Max Fischer staged in “Rushmore”), the teens grow up and the focus falls solely on adult Red’s obsessive quest to find his fortune in oil. He’s like Daniel Plainview, only whinier and less homicidal. Meanwhile, Hanna (now played by Elizabeth Ann Bennett) inexplicably loses her spark and fades into the background to care for the couple’s four interchangeable children as any dutiful wife (apparently) should.
Popular on Variety
Beyond the dispiriting gender politics, the pic’s social agenda emerges as hopelessly muddled. Struggling to make ends meet during the Depression, Red learns a valuable Ayn Randian lesson from a wealthy land owner (Peter Fonda, onscreen for about three minutes): Most people are sheep, while successful men are bellwethers. It’s only once the unapologetically greedy Red has selfishly amassed his own wealth (by stepping on or exploiting an untold number of “sheep” in the process), that he realizes he’s lost his soul. So he promptly buys it back by creating a “foundation” for generically altruistic purposes.
At least the narrative sloppiness and ineptly delivered themes in the script by Brian Bird and Lisa G. Shillingburg (freely adapted from the novel by Jim Stovall) feel of a piece with the entire production.