The message of "The Ultimate Life" could be summed up on a greeting card. Or rather, 12 greeting cards.
The cheesy, would-be heartwarming drama makes much of the 12 "gifts" that the late Texas oil baron Red Stevens (James Garner, in a 45-second prologue) has left to his grandson Jason (Logan Bartholomew), who runs the billion-dollar foundation that his grandfather set up before his death. As we learn, they're lessons on the order of "Every day is a gift" and "Gratitude is a gift."
I'm sorry. If those are spoilers, you need to get out more.
Directed by Michael Landon Jr., who has made a career out of producing and directing clean, inspirational movies for the faith community, "The Ultimate Life" sets out to show us, in flashback, just how Red (played by Austin James as a teenager, and later by Drew Waters) came to these epiphanies. Apparently, it's by making boatloads of money.
That's pretty much all Red cares about, from his first job as a ranch hand after running away from home in the 1940s, to his ownership of a giant company in the late 1960s. Little happens along the way to make him stop and reflect about life's deeper meaning, until an episode late in the film, which feels forced, heavy-handed and cloying. The acting is wooden, if earnest. And the script (by Brian Bird and Lisa G. Shillingburg, based on a novel by Jim Stovall) is painfully formulaic.
As for the film's production values, it looks and sounds slightly less professional than a made-for-TV movie, with costumes, hairstyles and set dressing that look thrown together on the cheap. One scene, meant to be taking place in 1941, shows a rancher (Peter Fonda) peeling money from a wad of $20 bills that are clearly of contemporary design, not introduced until 2003.
But such sloppy attention to period detail is the least of the film's worries. Such gaffes will likely not be noticed by viewers, most of whom will have fallen asleep by that point.
Michael O'Sullivan writes for the Washington Post.
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